Every year now, Yom HaShoah, which will start this year as the sun goes down on Wednesday, becomes more poignant.
The survivors still among us not only were strong, smart, and lucky when they were young, they are not only brave and resilient, they are not only marked by unimaginable childhood trauma, they also by now are growing old. Some of them are quite old, and not even the youngest is young any more.
Every year there are fewer of them.
Every single one of them has a story; each story is unique and all have some common characteristics. Every survivor was stalked by hatred and death. Every one of them is marked by it. Every survivor had the opportunity to talk about what happened or to choose not to relive it but to lock it away and lose the keys in their hearts. And every survivor who talked also taught, simply through the act of talking.
This year, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is marking Yom HaShoah with a video called “100 Words.” It features 100 survivors from Canada, England, France, Germany, Israel, Ukraine, and the United States. Each reads a word of the 100; together, they form a simple message warning against the power of hate. “We must remember the past or it will become our future,” the message tells viewers.
“This project is bringing the voices of Holocaust survivors to the fore,” Gideon Taylor, the president of the Claims Conference, told me. “As there are fewer and fewer survivors, it is more and more important that we give them a platform and a voice and a loudspeaker.”
The platform matters too, Gideon continued. “Presenting these voices through the internet is essential. That’s where most young people are getting their information. Traditionally it’s been through books, and statements, and newspapers, and those still are important, but giving survivors voices through internet campaigns is particularly important.”
He’s proud to be able to say that “we were able to include some Ukrainian survivors.” Those survivors have decided either to stay in Germany, where they were taken first, or to go on to Israel. “We’ve been working closely with the JDC” — that’s the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — “to get them to Germany, and then to Israel if they want to go,” Gideon said.
The Claims Conference also worked with local social service agencies, including the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, he added.
“And this is time not only to remember survivors, but also to honor the people who work with them,” Gideon said. “I have seen them at work selflessly in New Jersey, in New York, around the country — and also in Ukraine throughout the war.
“We have been able to continue home health care for virtually all the survivors in Ukraine” — the ones who are too frail to escape — “because of these incredibly dedicated and committed workers. They often form incredibly deep bonds with survivors, so the work becomes not just a job but also a friendship. A very real relationship.”
Those jobs are hard. They require patience and self-discipline. They do not pay well, and they do not provide high status. But they do allow for bonds of love and trust to develop. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s amazing.
“That’s why we wanted to partner with social service agencies,” Gideon continued. “Their staff is there, dealing with people day in and day out. And they are not providing technical services.” Instead, when the relationship gels, they are helping to perpetuate memory.
“Most of the home care workers are not Jewish, and many of them had no connection to or even memory of the Holocaust, or at times even of Jews, but obviously this is a job that is more than a job.
“We are blessed because there are people and agencies that can help Holocaust survivors in their final years.” Labor of love might be a cliché, it seems, but it’s based on truth.
Abe Foxman of Bergen County, who survived the Holocaust by living as a small Catholic child in his Polish nanny’s house, is the retired executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. He has one of the words on the video, although he doesn’t know yet which word it will be. He was asked to record the entire paragraph — no doubt everyone else was too — and then whoever puts it together will decide who will say what on the video.
“We are the last witnesses,” Abe said. “It is a good thing to do, to give survivors a voice. So I said that whatever they ask me to do, I’ll do.”
He explained why he believes that survivors must speak out.
“When I was in college I was writing an undergraduate honors paper on the Vilna ghetto,” he said. “I found diaries, so I asked my father why Jews, who were under the threat of death, bartered soup for ink or bread for paper.” It made no sense to him, because having food could be “the difference between life and death.”
His father understood. He knew why a starving person would trade away food for paper and ink. “He said they were afraid that no one in the future will know that they lived and how they died,” Mr. Foxman said.
“Therefore, our mission imperative as survivors is to bear witness.
“And then our children and grandchildren, who are also ‘survivors,’ will have to continue to bear witness.
“That the meaning of this project.”