Commonpoint Queens Resilience Program for Holocaust Survivors commemorated Kristallnacht on Wednesday, November 9, with the opening of their photo exhibition “Resilience,” featuring the portraits – and words of resilience – of Holocaust survivors at their Sam Field Center in Little Neck, Queens. Over 150 guests participated in the unique reception that was highlighted by dozens of Holocaust survivors, sitting amongst their family, friends, staff, and community members.
“I was quite astounded,” reported Barry Gottlieb, Chairman of the Board, of his experience upon entering the exhibit. “I have never seen anything like those words and pictures, and I was stopped in my tracks by their power.” The stories of resilience recounted by survivors gives our generation the ability to spread the message of truth for future generations.
These lessons took on greater significance this year with the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, both physically and virtually. Everyday folk have come to understand what unchecked baseless hatred leads to, and we all have the duty to ensure that when we say the phrase “Never again,” we use it as a call to action to stand up and seek out justice, adding our voices to a powerful unit. As I spoke with the survivors and their families, it remained clear that the message was to ensure that nobody forgets the travesties of the Shoah and how survivors again learned to hope and to love. Kristallnacht signaled the change from rhetoric to violence against Jews, as store windows and shuls were destroyed, sending world Jewry into darkness. The resilience exhibit shines the light on the facts of the Holocaust, the parallels in our own lives, and the resilience of the individual stories of the survivors.
“We are so thankful to all of the survivors for giving of their time and participating in this project,” said Danielle Ellman, CEO. “Especially with the current rise in anti-Semitism, we thank you for retelling your story and reliving your trauma at the sacrifice of your mental health, so future generations do not forget the atrocities of the Holocaust.” Ellman explained, “What makes me proudest of this exhibit is how you defined your resilience, speaking about your children and grandchildren.” Through the sadness emerged beautiful offspring to continue to hold the mantel of the Jewish people as we slowly come back to pre-Holocaust populations.
The legacy photos, shot by Stolis Hadjicharalambous, depict what resilience has meant to the survivors both from the tragic personal experiences during World War II and times of joy and love throughout their lives. The event also featured the written words of survivors offering sound advice, and profound wisdom about the power of resilience, targeting the generation to come. “You changed my life,” commented Hadjicharalambous to the survivors, of the time dedicated to bringing the project to fruition. The event was highlighted by a standing ovation to the survivors who saluted one another for their toughness and bravery.
As explained by Leslie Kraut, Program Director, the program offers to survivors a variety of services promoting independence and dignity. Emotional support and community involvement is made available through personal concierge services, social programs, referrals to communal services, assistance with reparations, kosher food pantry home deliveries, assistance with advance care planning, supportive counseling services, community events, and emergency financial aid. Therapy is also available to individuals and their families with a clinical social worker trained in patient-centered trauma-informed care, psychiatric support, telemedicine, community-based support groups, telephone reassurance, and home visits to struggling homebound survivors.
Ethel Gittel Landau, a survivor residing in Kew Gardens Hills, was proud to participate alongside family, using her story of survival as a testament to history. Lena Casuto Goren, born 1930 in Salonika, Greece, moved to Larissa when her father was appointed the Chief Rabbi, and was just nine at the start of World War II. By age 11, the war came to Greece and the city mayor informed the Jewish community that they should prepare for deportation to concentration camps. The Casuto Goren family joined 83 townspeople in a monastery within the Mountains of La Tzouma to stay hidden during the war until immigrating to the US at age 17. In her exhibit photos, one can see the energy once used to become a Miss Senior America finalist, alongside her own designed outfits, based on her work as a seamstress.
Of note is the first exhibit photo of Ruth Genuth Mermelstein of Sighet, Transylvania, who passed away last month, on October 16, having filled her life with love, kindness, and compassion for others, despite a childhood wrought with unimaginable horrors. Her daughter Bernice Lerner of Cambridge, Massachusetts, noted that her mom was one of the youngest children in the death camps, and survived with her sister Elisabeth, surviving a five-week death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and a bout with tuberculosis that sent her to recover in Sweden. Like many survivors I met, Ruth did not let the Holocaust affect how she lived her life, always grateful for another day.
Chana Szancer, a survivor now of Forest Hills, is currently a resident at Margaret Tietz Nursing and Rehabilitation. She attended with her rehab aide, Mazal, and Linda Spiegel of the facility. “We are alive, and proud to be living,” proclaimed Chana as she stood beside her portraits, with her radiant smile bearing witness to a rebirth of the Jewish people. Survivors Leah and Jehuda stated, “We are so happy to be here today living every day to the fullest. Survivor Dora Srulawitz of Rochelle Village attended with three children who said their mom is “a force to be reckoned with.” Rose Reizbaum of Forest Hills was delighted to be in attendance and have her photo included in the exhibit. George Schiffman was born in Czechoslovakia and now resides in Bayside. His message to all is to keep smiling, because that is what gives him the strength to push forward.
Survivors were dealt a terrible blow but have since used the horrid experiences to deal with situations that emerged during their lives giving them strength and fortitude that may have been kept dormant. Resilience is finding faith and determination in every obstacle faced.
By Shabsie Saphirstein