Yom HaShoah – Our Six Million Remembered at The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Beth Jacob Congregation, and The Museum of Tolerance
Hundreds of people gathered together on Sunday, April 23rd, in a tent adjacent to LAMOTH, The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, in a tremendous show of unity. They bore witness to the period of history when a “civilized” people committed unspeakable atrocities. The event was held under the leadership of recently appointed executive director Beth Kean.
The annual memorial service began with remarks by second-generation Holocaust survivor and LAMOTH President Paul S. Nussbaum. He stated that the museum, founded in 1961 by local Holocaust survivors, presently has an archive which includes almost one million precious personal artifacts. Nussbaum himself was bearing witness for scores of his family members who perished at Birkenau. He cautioned that today, looking across the landscape of Britain and even, shamefully, in the U.S., there is silence, indifference and – once again – the seeds of hatred. Being a witness, he said, can no longer be passive, but has to be a clarion call to action.
Renee Firestone was one Holocaust survivor who could not be silent. She said that Czechoslovakia was a wonderful democratic country until it was destroyed by the Nazis. Her father’s business was confiscated, her family put in the ghetto and then sent to Auschwitz. She and her sister were separated from their parents. Her mother was gassed, her father was missing (later on to be found dying of tuberculosis); her sister, later murdered. Her brother, she discovered, was a partisan fighting the Nazis and then recruited by the Haganah to fight for the new state of Israel. Mrs. Firestone said she was lucky after coming to the U.S. She speaks and teaches students to put down their cell phones and start talking and respecting each other.
Other speakers at LAMOTH included Gila Gamliel, Minister of Social Equality in the Knesset; Consul General for Israel Sam Grundwerg; Rabbi Fruithandler of Sinai Temple; Ron Galperin, second-generation survivor and Los Angeles City Controller; and John Emerson, U.S. Ambassador to Germany who served under Clinton and Obama; and his wife Kimberly, a human rights activist.
MK Gila Gamliel was also present at another program, the fortieth Yom HaShoah commemoration held at The Museum of Tolerance. She told both audiences that the difference between then and now is that now we have a strong state of Israel.
Director of the Museum of Tolerance, Liebe Geft, said the focus of this year’s program was “on the brave people who had the courage to stand up against evil and rescue those who are in peril.” The newest exhibit, produced by Olga Menzelova and curated by Professor Jaroslav Brabec, is the story of multiple-medal recipient and honoree, Nicholas Winton. As a young man in his twenties, Winton skipped a planned ski trip and rescued 669 Jewish children. He lived long enough – he passed away at the age of 106 – to meet and be thanked by many of the children he saved, including one, Dave Lux, who was in the audience.
During the Holocaust, tens of thousands of non-Jews risked their lives to save Jews. Filmmaker Debbie Goodstein has produced a new documentary Echoes From the Attic, a sequel to her previous film about the Grocholski family who hid a family (her relatives) of 16 men, women, and children in their farm attic for two years.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper delivered the commemorative address for 2017. He welcomed Consul Generals from around the globe many of whom are battling terrorism, “a battle none of us can say has been won.” Rabbi Cooper continued that in 2017, for the first time since the defeat of Nazi Germany, there has been a forced closure of a Jewish institution because of Nazi threats. Before Pesach, leaders of a small Jewish community were threatened and swastikas were painted on the JCC in democratic Sweden. The Swedish government is doing nothing to protect local Jews, who have been threatened for five years. There are many other examples of growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and there is a 45 percent spike on college campuses in the United States, partially spurred on by the BDS movement.
Rabbi Cooper said in the name of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, that in spite of this, we still have an obligation to fight against genocide even against our historic enemy Syria. Israel has been helping the wounded in Syria with an operational hospital on the Syrian frontier saving thousands of lives, no questions asked.
Sunday evening, Beth Jacob was the venue for a program sponsored by the David and Fela Shapell Institute for Shoah U’Gevurah at Yeshiva University. Following tehillim read by Rabbi Topp, there were beautiful renditions of songs by the talented Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy Choir under the tutelage of Beth Jacob Cantor Arik Wolheim and Katherine Simon. Joey Small, the Western Region Director of Yeshiva University introduced keynote speaker, Rabbi Benjamin Blech. Rabbi Blech is an internationally recognized best-selling author and educator. He has been teaching at YU for over 50 years.
Rabbi Blech said with great emotion that it is unconscionable that there are people who question why the Holocaust still must be remembered. One reporter asked Rabbi Blech that very question, and the rabbi replied that it would be spoken at least six million more times. Blech’s response received applause from the crowd at Beth Jacob.
One of the greatest gifts to the Jewish people, Rabbi Blech said, was the best-selling book, The Gift of the Jews. It was written by a non-Jew, an Irishman named Thomas Kagel, who was impressed with the uniqueness of the Jewish people. Kagel said that the Jews brought a new idea to humanity by ritualizing and institutionalizing memory so that humankind can learn from the past. However, said Rabbi Blech, “It isn’t only that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it or in more modern terms retweet it.” If we forget we forgive, Rabbi Blech continued, we become complicit in the crimes of the past. In fact, he said, to forget is to reenact in some measure the original crime. “We are all survivors,” he explained, “because Hitler wanted to destroy all of us.”
Rabbi Blech said he wanted to share something amazing, and that is that we are also survivors in a different sense. He relates a fascinating question posed to the Ponevezher Rav. The Rav was asked why there are more Jews who are baalei teshuvah in this generation than ever before.
Rabbi Blech then digressed, saying that his own father, who was a rabbi in Switzerland, once attended a conference in the early nineteen-teens or -twenties the gedolei hador. The Chofetz Chayim was there along with many other Torah luminaries. His father told a story that in Zurich there was a man who was not religious and returned to the fold. This concept of a baal teshuvah almost never existed in the shtetl. They were all incredulous, and this baal teshuvah was the highlight of the conference. But now, in our days, baalei teshuvah are all over the world.
In response to this increase of baalei teshuvah, the Ponevezher Rav said that the baalei teshuvah today are the neshamos and the tehorim of the six million murdered in the Holocaust. Some people have trouble believing this, but Rabbi Blech believes it literally and suggested to at least accept it metaphorically as a description of the reality of six million having perished.
Rabbi Blech says G-d stepped in post-1945 with a remarkable prediction. The Talmud tells us one of the students of the Tannaim asked his rebbe to tell him how will know when the Messianic age is here. He was answered with a story about a family traveling through a desert and the son was impatient. He kept asking how he will we know when they arrive? His father said that we will know when we see a beit hakevarot (cemetery).
How will the Jewish people know when the geulah is near? Rabbi Blech said: in the aftermath of a cemetery. It will happen when there is a cemetery occupied by six million.
He asked the audience, “How can anyone be insensitive to the proximity of Yom Ha Shoah (1945,) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (1948)?” There is a medrash on Tehillim, a verse that says G-d will answer you on a day of tragedy. HaKadosh Baruch Hu will say, Dayenu. In 1945 the Holocaust ended and in 1948 the State of Israel began. It is a great nes that our people that were almost wiped out returned three years later to our Jewish homeland.
Another moving and inspirational teaching Rabbi Blech shared was from Rav Kook. Rav Kook said in 1947, “On the basis of sources, I believe when the Jewish population of Palestine reaches the biblical number of Jews mentioned in the Torah of 600,000, that is when we have our State of Israel.” That’s exactly what happened in 1948.
Rabbi Blech also repeated a tradition that geulah shleimah will come when the population of Jews will reach six million. This is the first year the number of Jews in Israel has finally reached six million.
Eli Wiesel – who was quoted many times in all three programs – said, “We are the most cursed generation and the most blessed generation.” There is the generation that saw the Holocaust, the curse, and today’s young people are the generation able to see the blessing.
“Next week,” Rabbi Blech said, “on Yom Ha’atzmaut – celebrate and say that Hitler, yemach shemo, did not win.” Also, the most amazing Yom Yerushalayim is approaching May 24th of this year, marking the Yovel.
Rabbi Blech concluded on a very hopeful note that we have lived through the worst, so now let us live through the brightest, the best geulah shleimah.