It’s not the usual Sunday night program at a suburban temple, but then Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes the direct descendant of the old Barnert Temple in Paterson has always understood Holocaust survivors. Congregants were holding doing Holocaust commemorations long before they became common more than 30 years ago.
From left in Barnert Temple’s sanctuary are Jacqueline Murekatete, Lillian Gewirtzman, and David Gewirtzman.
On Sunday night they took the commemoration of Kristallnacht an anti-Jewish riot in German on Nov. 9-10, 1938 to the next level. Lynn Kaston, of the Advisory Board, read an article in The Jewish Standard in March ‘005 about an extraordinary duo. These complete opposites were making the rounds of schools to teach kids not to hate each other and that genocide is unconscionable. They had both survived genocide. Everything else was as different as can be. So Kaston brought them to speak to the students at her local public school in Kinnelon. They made such a deep impression on the school community, she then brought pair to the attention of Sara Losch, the temple’s director of Jewish life and educational director. Kaston and Losch felt that these two people would make this year’s annual Kristallnacht commemoration an unforgettable one.
They were right. David Gewirtzman, a 78-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor, lives in Riverdale, N.Y. He does what many Holocaust survivors have done. He talks about his experiences during the Holocaust to kids in schools around New York City and its suburbs. This was not easy for him to do. It took him a very long time to learn how to do it without breaking down, but he felt compelled to keep the promise he made to those left behind. He suffered from severe survivor guilt, but continued his work, doing it alone, for 10 long, painful years.
One day in ‘001, soon after Sept. 11, he spoke in a high school classroom in Queens, and as usual, received a batch of letters from the students a few days later. But in this pile was a letter from Jacqueline Murekatete, a 16-year-old girl, that knocked him for a loop. She wrote, in part: "A few times I have asked myself if there are two races in the world, human beings and human-like beings…. I can’t seem to understand why [some] human beings [can] commit such evil and others would never imagine such a thing…. I have myself … gone through such experiences as you had. In 1994, there was genocide in my country Rwanda…. My ethnic group was the victim of genocide…. I myself ended up losing my family, my parents, all my brothers and sisters … numerous relatives…. At one time, I … like you had the feeling of guilt for being alive…. Why was I left?… I never really got an answer to that, but now I am grateful that I was left. Maybe I can make a difference in this world if I try, and maybe I can do my part in making sure that no other human being goes through the same experiences I did…."
The two decided to meet for a short lunch that ended up taking eight hours, and since then, they have been inseparable on the speaking circuit, sharing their compelling stories with anyone who would listen. They are on a mutual mission to change the world.
He is, as Gewirtzman says, an old, white Jewish man from Poland, a man who came to America, earned a college degree, and became a successful pharmacist, rebuilding his family and his way of life. He’s short, and sort of round, with a sense of humor and an engaging manner. She is young and black, tall and beautiful, thin and graceful, a senior at NYU who is thinking of studying law. They tell their harrowing, painful, personal testimonies, and though there are kids scattered in the audience of about 60 people, for two hours, everyone remains rapt, almost unmoving, until the close, a plea for people to speak out about the genocide in Darfur. They were given a standing ovation. They deserved it. The question is, what happens next?
As the young girl wrote to the old man: "The most important lesson I learned from you was that as human beings we face an ugly disease hate; and the only weapon we have against it is education. I will try my best to use this weapon in fighting this terrible disease." This mission, they tell us, is not theirs alone to carry out. We must join them in their quest for what they are doing to make a difference.