We are a nation that remembers. We remember Yetzias Mitzrayim every day, we fast to commemorate events that happened thousands of years ago, and we remember the events of most recent generations, including our own. We are now in the time period when we remember the victims of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, as well as the fallen soldiers and victims of terror on Yom HaZikaron. As the number of living Holocaust survivors decreases, there are those who are determined to make sure that the Holocaust is never forgotten.
Nir Galim is a religious moshav in south-central Israel, established in 1949 by Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Central Europe - among them a set of twins who survived Josef Mengele’s experiments. When my family goes to visit my husband’s aunt and uncle who live there, the strength and heroism of those who have lived through the worst but who have gone on to build beautiful, fulfilling, and contributing lives can be felt in the air. In 1991, they established Beit Haedut, the Testimony House for the Heritage of the Holocaust, in order to educate the thousands of visitors who come annually from inside and outside the country about the Shoah. For years, the museum has invited the public to an annual outdoor ceremony on Yom HaShoah. Hundreds typically attend the ceremony, which each year focuses on one aspect of the Holocaust. This year the topic was Auschwitz.
Following speeches given by those involved in the museum as well as Yoaz Hendel, current Minister of Communication, the program consisted of videos showing documentation and interviews with survivors about life in Auschwitz. One part was of the program portrayed an area in Auschwitz that exclusively contained families deported from Theresienstadt, located in Czechoslovakia, in September 1943. Theresienstadt was the Nazi’s showcase camp that was presented to the Red Cross to show the “wonderful” living conditions that Jews had at the time. This piece of Nazi propaganda involved opening fake stores, schools, kindergartens, and a coffee house, and planting flowers throughout the ghetto. It was a total farce. Behind the idyllic life that these families supposedly led, there was much sickness, starvation, and suffering. Thousands were transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz in order to reduce the crowding in the ghetto before a visit from the Red Cross. Every one of the deportees from Theresienstadt was placed in this area of the camp. There was no selectzia. In this enclave, children and parents lived together. Everyone had hair and was dressed in regular clothing. The unusual sounds of happy voices, song, and play could be heard. Freddy Hirsch, who had taken it upon himself to educate the children in Theresienstadt, continued to do the same in Auschwitz. On this small island of serenity, he was able to teach them, engage them in enjoyable activities, and provide them with a small semblance of childhood. But it was only six months later that the deportees understood that the code “SB6” that appeared on their identity cards meant that they would be killed six months after their arrival at Auschwitz. Tragically, that is exactly what happened.
Another video presentation focused on Zalman Gordovsky, who was assigned to the Sonderkommando Unit. Prisoners in that unit had the terrible job of working in the crematoria. Zalman documented what was happening in the camps by writing on small pieces of paper and hid the papers in metal containers and canteens. In the only rebellion known to take place at Auschwitz, the Sonderkommando Unit, along with 451 prisoners, revolted against the Nazis. They blew up the crematoria and permanently disabled them. Tragically, they were all killed, but the writings of Zalman were later found, bringing to light the horrors that the prisoners endured.
Amir Eshel, a child of Holocaust survivors and the CEO of the Ministry of Defense, told of his experience flying over Auschwitz as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. An iconic photo was taken of the entrance to Auschwitz with the Israeli airplanes in the air. Eshel showed aerial photos from the time of the war that indicate that the American government was bombing factories very close to Auschwitz. However, they did not bomb Auschwitz itself. He understands from this that rather than save Jews, their intention was to win the war.
With the help of videos along with young musicians and actresses, the story of the Austrian violinist, Alma Maria Rose, was presented. Alma was deported to Auschwitz, where she led an orchestra of girls who played for their captors in order to stay alive. She tried to have as many girls as she could join the orchestra in order to save as many as possible. She was demanding of the girls, telling them that they would live or die together. She encouraged them by saying that one day they would be free and would play in concert halls all over Europe. Because of her orchestra, Alma was able to convince the SS to provide blankets, mattresses, and even a heater for her charges. Everyone was shocked when Alma got sick and died very suddenly. One of the surviving musicians from the orchestra addressed the audience via video and continued telling their story. The girls were deported to Bergen Belsen. All but two of them survived the war. Many of them went on to play in concert halls, just as Alma said they would.
When we as Jews remember the terrible events that we have lived through as a nation, we are better able to appreciate the good that befalls us as well. When we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut this week, we will remember the difficulties of our past, and we will appreciate the miracle of the State of Israel. We can also express our gratitude to Hashem and to those who made great personal sacrifices in order to make the dream of a Jewish state become a reality.