|Rita Lerner, left, and Ann Oster Gail Abramson|
In an era of rapid-fire turnover and revolving-door leadership, two local women are marking a 20-year partnership to perpetuate memories of those who died in the Holocaust and celebrate the lives of the survivors. Rita Lerner of Englewood Cliffs and Ann Oster of Englewood have worked together for two decades on a mission that over time became their calling in life.
Both women are daughters of Holocaust survivors. Lerner’s mother was imprisoned in Dachau, her father sent to a labor camp in Siberia. They met after the war on the ship going to the United States. Oster’s parents, too, were sent east from Poland to Siberia, married there, and lost two small children, siblings Oster and her brother, who were born here, never knew.
The women bear a striking resemblance to each other and say that they feel like sisters. There are other parallels. Both work in real estate, both raised their families in Bergen County, and both grew up in warm, nurturing families steeped in Jewish values.
The pair met, more than 20 years ago, at a federation book-and-author event. The speaker that day was a Holocaust survivor. Each identified herself as a child of survivors at that gathering. They became friends and teamed up to work as volunteers for a fledgling enterprise that became the Museum of Jewish Heritage”“A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in downtown New York. The building overlooks the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor, sites of safety, Oster notes, which eluded so many Jews trying to escape the horrors of wartime Europe.
Their museum work brought them into contact with the late Benjamin Meed, who was active in the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Decendants, and later became its head. Meed was looking for younger people to become involved in his group’s work and help perpetuate its legacy. The Gathering’s day of remembrance of those who died in the Holocaust had been an annual event for 20 years at that time. Lerner and Oster were asked to join the effort to take the group’s work into the future. They have been committed to that task every since.
The museum, now 11 years old, embraced the mission of the American Gathering five years ago by offering resources and support to the Annual Gathering of Remembrance, reflecting Lerner and Oster’s collaboration with both organizations. Their years of volunteering for the museum have earned them a place in its leadership and they continue to work closely together to advance its mission.
Museum director David G. Marwell said, “As children of survivors, museum trustees Rita Lerner and Ann Oster are especially sensitive to those who have lost family in the Holocaust. They represent the passion of the second generation, and the Annual Gathering of Remembrance would not be the vital event that it is without them.”
Lerner and Oster have become identified with the Annual Gathering of Remembrance. They work for months with a dedicated group of volunteers to organize the program and serve as emcees on the day of the event.
They will tell you that this work is a labor of love that gives fulfillment and meaning to their lives. But the two also candidly share a visceral component to their commitment that transcends everyday altruism. Lerner and Oster say that they are “different.” As children of survivors they view their own existence in this world as “miraculous” and share details of their lives growing up in homes where Yiddish – not English – was the first language, and there were no grandparents at holiday tables.
The pair refer to Jewish friends who do not share their Holocaust background as “Americans,” alluding to a protected status not bestowed upon their own families. They are profoundly grateful for everything that many take for granted. Nothing in their lives is a given.
Lerner noted in an early presentation to survivors, “It would be easy for me, the modern Rita Lerner, to continue living a comfortable suburban life, but it is the Rivka in me that has driven me to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
Oster adds that her involvement “changed my life and gave me a purpose.” She also takes her passion for this work to venues honoring her late husband, Abe Oster, also the child of survivors, by underwriting a yearly Holocaust essay competition for high school students, in his name, at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
This year’s Annual Gathering of Remembrance takes place on Sunday, April 26, at 3 p.m. at Cong. Emanu-El of the City of New York, Fifth Avenue and 65th Street.