Rabbi Arye D. Gordon
On Monday, March 7, 2016, at the Museum of Tolerance, Project Witness presented a screening of the original, full-length documentary commemorating the destruction of Polish Jewry, “Once Upon A Family.” The murder of three million Polish Jews was a devastating blow to klal Yisroel, resulting in an almost complete annihilation of many major Jewish communities. The Nazis killed rabbanim, roshei yeshivos, rebbes, and yidden of all kinds. This new film tells their stories.
Project Witness is the brainchild of Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of the Hamodia daily newspaper. Mrs. Lichtenstein has made Holocaust remembrance her life’s mission. Serving as a Holocaust resource center, Project Witness has focused on research and the creation of thought-provoking educational materials for schools, communities, and lay leaders. “Our goal is to empower the future by remembering the past,” says Mrs. Deborah Schechter, Project Witness’s educational director. “We aim to inspire upcoming generations to absorb the spiritual courage and dedication of those who fueled our nation’s rebuilding – whether they perished or survived.”
The evening’s Master of Ceremonies, Rabbi Eli Ryzman, rav of the Young Couples Minyan at YIHP, extended thank-yous to various individuals and to the Wiesenthal Center for being a focal point through which light can emanate. In thinking about what he would say, Rabbi Ryzman took inspiration from the Project Witness tag line, the memorable phrase that sums up the tone and premise of what Project Witness is all about – to Educate, Inspire, and Transform. And so he asked, “How are we to educate, inspire, and transform?”
In realizing that the devastation of the Holocaust occurred in just a five-year period, it is easy to overlook that previously, a period of close to 1000 years passed which were better times for the Jews of Poland. Jews first settled in Poland in the early Middle Ages. From about the 17th Century until the beginning of the 20th Century, the country was the global center of Jewish life. For example, in 1917, Jews accounted for 44% of Warsaw’s population. The vibrant community – along with its synagogues, businesses, and schools – were destroyed during the Holocaust.
“We have a moral obligation to remember not only how Jews died but also how they lived, lest the world knows more about how they died than how they lived.” Therefore, Rabbi Ryzman continued, “I try to inspire not only by talking about death, but talking about life, as well.”
The documentary “Once Upon a Family” is composed of live interviews with survivors. Through powerful footage, rare documents and pictures, and interviews with survivors and historians, the full-length film poignantly captures the character of a deeply committed segment of Polish Jewry.
Before the presentation of the documentary, we heard from Mrs. Lichtenstein. She set the emotional tone by playing for us what is known as the “Treblinka Song,” as it was recorded and sung by a remnant of children that survived the horrors.
We heard also from Rabbi Avraham Czapnik, the head of the Los Angeles Learning Exchange. He too engaged us with snippets of his family’s history and experiences in those momentous times. His voice cracked with emotion as he relived events his parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had described to him. Rabbi Czapnik, left us with a tale of a cap and a candelabra. Raising up the striped cap, recognizable as part of the uniform worn by concentration camp victims, Rabbi Czapnik told us, “This was my father’s cap in the concentration camp. A friend of his, who worked on planes near his camp, took one of the cleaning rags that had the initials of the Luftwaffe on it, and put it in my father’s cap, so that it would provide some warmth for his head. An act that could have cost this man his life.”
And then he explained the candelabra: A gift from Mrs. Marcus, a survivor. “One of Mrs. Marcus’s possessions was a candelabra, and after being the one to approve of the shidduch of my parents, this was her gift to them. ‘If a young couple is going to build a Jewish home, then this Shabbos lichter belongs to them,’ she said.”
Before the actual showing of the documentary, Rabbi Ryzman left us with these parting words. “We all, by our education, inspiration, and transformation, are not only witnesses to what was, but we will insure that Ma shehaya, those Jews that were, Hu she’yi’hi’yeh, they will have those that will come in their place and bear witness that the saga lives on – Ma shehaya, Hu she’yi’hi’yeh.”
Photo: Arye D Gordon