The last survivors and a new museum

The last survivors and a new museum

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein is the Rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Rockland County.

Two weeks ago, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which many consider the beginning of the Holocaust, I stood under a chuppah, officiating at the wedding of my niece. She is the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, and though they are no longer living, their presence was palpable. The wedding, coming as it did on Kristallnacht, served as a fitting symbol of their resolve and dedication to build a Jewish home and perpetuate their family’s name and our people.

This week, I officiated at the unveiling of a Holocaust survivor. Her husband, also a survivor, had died 18 years earlier. After the unveiling, standing by the graves, my mind drifted, and I reflected on the recent wedding, on this unveiling, and on the generation of survivors, witnesses to the most unspeakable of horrors. Their generation is coming to an end. I am not sure what the world will be like when there are no more survivors to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Our generation has been able to glean some understanding of the horrors these survivors endured through the accounts they shared. As is the way of all things, that soon will come to an end.

In 2020, the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the the end of World War II. Over the years, countries have commemorated significant anniversaries of the end of the War with pomp and ceremonies. Just this last year, the countries that made up the Allied Expeditionary Force that landed on the beaches of Normandy gathered in celebration and reflection to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Countries will mark the anniversary of the conclusion of the war in many ways, but can you commemorate liberation from concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust? If so, what could be a fitting commemoration?

The world we are living in is a very confusing one. Seventy-five years after defeating the Nazis in Europe, America witnessed Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. Swastikas are being drawn on walls. Synagogues and Jewish communities have been targeted around the world, and two of them, one in Pittsburgh and another in Poway, California, were attacked by “nationalists” spewing anti-Semitic hate during and after fleeing their attacks. I have heard survivors say that they never expected to witness such evil in their lifetime again, especially here in America. It is hard to comprehend what has become of us, and where we find ourselves in 2019.

Over the last decades, the voices of survivors have become increasingly stronger as they themselves have aged and weakened. The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 marked a moment when survivors were able to bear witness publicly and confront the evil that was perpetrated. In the years that followed, memoirs and recollections were published, and after the film “Schindler’s List” was released, a generation of memories were recorded and videoed so that they could be preserved for the future.

That future is arriving.

In the coming years, fewer survivors will be able to speak of all they saw and warn us of what can happen if we forget the lessons of history and stay silent in the face of hate. They never asked for this responsibility. It was thrust on them by circumstances, but many embraced the opportunity as a sacred duty to those they loved who were killed, as an act of justice for those who cannot speak, or as a personal mission for reasons they cannot fully explain. We, who survive the survivors, though we never sought it, now are charged with the responsibility to continue their work and their words. Our work is now beginning, but we have resources to draw on.

In Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is Israel’s national memorial, museum, and archive that memorializes the six million Jews who perished, commemorates the horrors of the Holocaust, and preserves the historical and personal records from those years. On the National Mall in Washington, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum serves as a national memorial to remind the people of this country of the evil that was perpetrated by the Nazis and how it was a threat not just to Jews, but to freedom throughout the world. There are other such museums and memorials in other countries and communities.

This year, a new resource is opening in Rockland County. The Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education is re-opening in January of 2020. This is a very exciting and important moment for our community. Once housed in the Finkelstein Library in Spring Valley, the museum now has found a new home and a new mission on the campus of Rockland Community College. At its new home, it will serve, as its mission states, “to educate our community about the lessons and legacies of the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights.”

In January, the museum will open with a special exhibit and presentation, “Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Forgotten Aspects of the Holocaust.” The exhibit documents the mass Jewish killing sites of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe uncovered by Father Patrick Desbois. It exposes an aspect of the Holocaust that largely had been hidden.

It’s wonderful that the HMCTE is opening this January and it will be a tremendous resource for our entire community. But buildings, even museums, cannot do the job alone. It is our responsibility to carry on the work of those who can longer speak for themselves. For this reason, when I was asked, I joined the board of the Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, and it is for this reason that I urge all to visit the museum when it reopens. More importantly, bring a friend, child, or grandchild, so that they will remember. It is our solemn obligation, our mitzvah, if you will, to fulfill our personal responsibility to ensure the world does not forget, and in remembering the Holocaust, create a more tolerant, loving, and better world.

Joshua S. Finkelstein is the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Rockland County.

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