What is the best way to keep alive the memory of the approximately 1.5 million children murdered in Nazi Europe?
That is a question master storyteller Rabbi Hanoch Teller poses to visitors after his guided tours of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
Memorial plaques or sculptures aren’t enough, Rabbi Teller, a well-known author and a senior docent at Yad Vashem, who will talk about “The Holy Responsibility of Remembrance: What is Our Communal Responsibility?” on April 17 to benefit the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial & Education Center planned for the Teaneck Municipal Green. (See box.)
“When I finish my tours, I try to give the sense that we have to carry on for the sake of those who died, in their memory,” he said. “That’s a responsibility we take on ourselves.”
One of the ways Rabbi Teller chose to shoulder that responsibility was to convey the personal testimonies of nine child survivors in his award-winning 2015 book, “Heroic Children: Untold Stories of the Unconquerable.”
“Although there is no shortage of Holocaust literature, the final frontier is the story of the children, and that’s what I wanted to capture,” he said. “I wanted to find children representing each part of the ‘Holocaust kingdom,’ boys and girls, religious and not, and most of all I wanted to make sure the stories were accurate. After all, I was asking people in the grips of old age to go back in time to when they were 9 or 10.”
The project involved countless hours of research and travel to interview survivors in Mexico, South Africa, Switzerland, the United States, and Canada, as well as in Israel, where he has lived since 1975. He also interviewed some people whose stories he did not include because of aspects of their stories that he could not verify.
“I’ve written 28 books in 30 years, and this one took 14 years because it was so much work,” he said. “I had to make sure everything was correct and accurate.” A forthcoming second edition of the book will include more than 1,000 endnotes.
Rabbi Teller discovered that some of the child survivors virtually grew up overnight as a result of their experiences.
One woman related that when she was 7 she was confined in a Bergen-Belsen barracks with her younger brother, their father, and a few other men, because they held Panamanian passports and the Germans wanted to use the Jews as leverage if their spies stationed in Latin America were to be endangered. “She watched over her brother for two years in that barracks, on a piece of wood,” Rabbi Teller said.
After they were liberated, she saw two older German girls playing with dolls, and she couldn’t fathom what they were doing. “She had been mothering her younger brother and could no longer relate,” he said. “She was almost a bubbie at the age of 9.”
Others, however, retained their sense of childhood. One interviewee told of escaping through France with his brothers and sisters. At one point they came across a statue of the Three Musketeers and started play swashbuckling. “For that moment, they forgot they were running for their lives — because, in the end, they were kids,” he said.
He made sure to include the full story of what happened to each of the nine survivors after the war. “By and large, people were able somehow to wipe the ashes from their shoulders and live productive lives, building families and businesses.”
They are all elderly by now, and therefore his book project was a race against time. “I felt if I didn’t do it now it wouldn’t be done. At least three of my subjects have died since the book was published in 2015.”
Rabbi Teller’s appearance in Teaneck will come on the heels of a U.S. speaking tour as part of “Seventy for 70,” a multistate scholar-in-residence program taking place in 70 North American communities, sponsored by the Religious Zionists of America and World Mizrachi in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. He also was scheduled to speak in Los Angeles on Yom Hashoah, April 12.
Rabbi Teller said that the planned Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Teaneck is an important project “because of George Santayana’s timeless message that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This terrible thing befell our people, and if nothing else we have to utilize it so their deaths should not be in vain.”
The co-chairs of the planned memorial, Steve Fox and Bruce Prince, said that Rabbi Teller’s theme, “the holy responsibility of remembrance,” and his book about child survivors help further the project’s goals to perpetuate the memory of the six million Jewish victims, and to educate local residents of all ages and backgrounds about the horrors and atrocities that defined the Holocaust.
The site approved on the Teaneck Municipal Green is to incorporate an innovative architectural design and high-tech educational component “to play an integral role in fostering community dialogue, understanding, respect and sense of civic responsibility,” according to the project’s website.
A 50-foot-long “reading rail” will use state-of-the-art technologies to convey an overview of Holocaust history and focus specifically on local survivor testimonies. The educational component of the outdoor exhibit will be reinforced by opportunities for enhanced learning through multimedia technologies and discussion both on the site and in the Teaneck Library in the same municipal complex.
The design of the educational component was entrusted to Ralph Applebaum Associates, whose previous projects include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
Bergen County residents will have the opportunity to sponsor the inscription of up to 2,000 names on the granite stones lining the inner circumference of the memorial, to memorialize ancestors who perished in the Holocaust.
Who: Rabbi Hanoch Teller
What: will speak on “The Holy Responsibility of Remembrance: What is Our Communal Responsibility?”
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 W. Englewood Avenue, Teaneck
When: Tuesday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m.
Why: To benefit the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial & Education Center planned for the Teaneck Municipal Green.
For more information: Go to www.nnjholocaustmemorial.org