(November 30, 2015 / JNS)
Their childhoods were stripped from them. Seventy years later, we—teens who are enjoying what they couldn’t when they were our age—are part of the last generation with the opportunity to hear firsthand from those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. We must become the vessels for their stories, passing them down to our children and, in turn, generations to come.
More than 100 survivors shared those stories of survival earlier this month at events with thousands of Jewish teenagers in 20 countries, from Canada to Argentina, Denmark to Israel, Ireland to Bulgaria, and in hundreds of communities across the United States. Global Shabbat— organized by BBYO, the leading international Jewish youth movement—was held just days before the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a wave of violent anti-Semitic attacks instigated by Nazi Party officials in 1938.
The survivors’ stories serve as lessons in resilience and the ability to overcome adversity. Their participation in these Shabbat events reminded us that despite the “Never Again” vow by survivors and the Jewish world, we need only look to the rest of the world to see that violence like Kristallnacht is not entirely in the past.
And they reminded us, too, that while many Jewish young people learn about the Holocaust and other world atrocities in our Hebrew schools, Jewish day schools, and Jewish youth groups, most Americans have had little to no education on that period of time as well as the roots of anti-Semitism, racism, mass murder, and genocide.
In Orlando, Fla, we heard from Czech-born Gene Klein, who was deported to Auschwitz—where his father was murdered in the gas chambers—and then to labor camps at Wolfsberg and Flossenberg. His mantra throughout his ordeal: If I gave up, it meant the Nazis had won.
In Providence, R.I., we heard from Alice Goldstein, who was a young child in Germany and whose family clothing store was burned down during Kristallnacht. Her family was fortunate enough to be able to flee to the U.S. right before World War II broke out.
We also heard from Vienna-born Alice Eichenbaum, who was 14 years old when her family was forced into a Bulgarian ghetto, living with three families in a tiny room, one loaf of bread a week, and an opportunity to bathe just once a month. The man she would later marry spent five years at Auschwitz and was 15 years old when he was liberated, weighing just 51 pounds.
At these events, we inducted the survivors as honorary members of AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph) and BBG (B’nai B’rith Girls), BBYO’s high school leadership fraternity and sorority. It was our way to share with them the happiness of our childhoods—happiness that the Nazis denied them.
With Holocaust denial rampant throughout the world (according to the Anti-Defamation League, two-thirds of people deny the Holocaust or believe that Jews exaggerate the number of deaths), the BBYO movement believes Holocaust education in schools is important so that we, as a global society, can hold true to “Never Again” and “Never Forget.”
Earlier this year, BBYO teen leaders passed a motion to begin encouraging state legislatures to mandate elementary and high school curriculum on genocides around the world, including the Holocaust. Only five states—California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York—currently mandate such education, with extensive curricula and guides. Ten other states encourage its teaching.
The best way we can honor the Holocaust survivors is by doing what we’ve recommitted to doing during our global Shabbat experiences: passing on their stories and ensuring that future generations understand that anti-Semitism and racial intolerance are often root causes for violence, totalitarianism, ethnic cleansing, and systematic genocide.
It is up to us, the last generation with the gift of hearing from these survivors firsthand, to pass on their stories. It is up to us to honor them today by listening, asking questions, and sharing with them the happiness of our own childhoods, giving them a chance to experience what the Nazis stole from them.
Lauren Keats and Colin Silverman are, respectively, the 71st International N’siah (International President) of B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) and the 91st Grand Aleph Godol (International President) of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), BBYO’s high school leadership sorority and fraternity.