By Sarah Lehman
No trip to Israel is complete without a trip to Yad Vashem. And no visitor to the acclaimed Holocaust Museum leaves dry-eyed. The delegation that recently visited Yad Vashem with the Israel Heritage Foundation was no exception.
More than 30 politicians, professionals and business people accompanied Israel Heritage Foundation executive vice president Dr. Joseph Frager, executive director Rabbi David Katz and special guest, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, on a trip to Israel. The seven-day visit took place the first week of August and included meetings with Knesset Members, government ministers and other dignitaries who briefed the delegation on current events affecting the Jewish state.
These officials included Minister of Finance Betzalel Smotrich; MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee; Minister of Heritage Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu; Minister of Education Yoav Kisch, Minister of Environmental Protection Idit Silman; MKs Dan Illouz; Ohad Tall; Michal Waldiger; Boaz Bizmuth; and Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi.
The delegation visited many sites within Jerusalem, including the Western Wall and the City of David. They also toured Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs, Shechem and Rachel’s Tomb, Masada, Shiloh and Kidmat Tzion.
The first stop of the program’s itinerary, however, was designated for a tour of Yad Vashem. As the Israel Heritage Foundation is an organization dedicated to advocating for the Jewish state, fighting antisemitism and combating Holocaust deniers, the visit laid the groundwork for asserting the significance of protecting Israel as the birthright of the Jewish people.
Indeed, Jerry Wartski, the foundation’s honorary president, is himself a Holocaust survivor. Having lost both of his parents in the Holocaust, he has a tattooed number on his arm to forever remind him of the nightmare of Auschwitz. To him, Israel is a home and a refuge from the tyrannies of the antisemitism he survived.
Frager pointed out that even though he has toured Yad Vashem previously, “every time, it’s incredibly eye-opening and impactful.”
He told the group that they are the “new ambassadors” with the task of safeguarding the memories of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
“These new ambassadors are incredible people,” Frager said of the delegation. “They’ve come from all over the U.S.—Utah, South Carolina, Florida, New Jersey. Many are in the public sphere and will go on to instruct thousands of people. They are very influential people. The real influencers.”
‘Seeing it in person is a whole new world’
One of the most impactful aspects of the trip was examining the museum’s Book of Names, which contains the names of 4.8 million Holocaust victims, and whenever possible, their date of birth, and their place of birth and death.
Group members poured over it. Former Rep. Katherine E. (“Katie”) Arrington, who came with her husband, Robert, from South Carolina, was shocked to find many names of her father’s family. She was overcome with emotion when she spoke to the group. “My father passed away when he was very young, and his family wasn’t very big. Now I find half a page of people that I’ll never know. I pray every day that it never happens again. But if we don’t pay attention and learn from history, it will repeat itself. We’re on the brink of it now. We saw evil, and the thing that takes evil and makes it good are the people that are here.”
Robert Arrington agreed: “It’s enlightening. As an American, I’ve read the textbooks but seeing it in person is a whole new world.”
Other delegation members also shared their impressions of their experience at the end of the tour. Jay and Lisa Lifton, philanthropists from Florida, invoked the memory of the 6 million victims: “Never again. We take on the obligation of what that means.”
Christine Heathman, the founder of GlyMed Plus products from Utah, said the experience at the Holocaust museum touched her soul. “It also educated me. One of the things about education is power, and the power of this museum is going to enlighten the world and keep it from ever happening again,” she said. “Each and every one of us needs to share our experience.”
New Jersey Assemblywoman Beth Sawyer recognized the special responsibility that her public position demands. “This has been a very moving experience for me, as an American Jewish woman and a single mother. I’ve learned so much today, and as a legislator, I have a moral obligation to ensure we educate all of our children so this will never be forgotten.”
The tour guide also acknowledged that “moral obligation” and relayed a quote from Ayn Rand for Sawyer to bear in mind” “When the law no longer protects you from the corrupt but protects the corrupt from you, you know your nation is doomed.”
The trip to Yad Vashem was not the first for attorney and international affairs consultant Jill Quentzel. “I was here in 1981,” she shared. “It’s interesting to see how it has grown. There are no cemeteries or tombstones for the many more ashes that came. Their final resting place is here.”
She also found listings of family names in the Book of Names. “Some of the Quentzel family ended up in Argentina, where we now have the Quentzel Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires. What I worry about the most is not only the evil perpetrators, but the people who know something is happening and don’t talk about it or do anything about it. I agree that we are beginning to see this again in the U.S. and it scares me. You can’t come here and not be moved.”
Alfred Oaks, an agriculture entrepreneur and political influencer from Naples, Fla., also drew attention to the subject of good and evil. “It really does touch the heart and shows you the worst of humanity. Good and evil. I believe that we’re facing this again, and it’s not going to be in the same fashion. We see what’s happening now with the World Economic Forum and what their plans are. It can happen globally again because we can see how bad human nature can get. We have to learn from this past, and it’s so important that this museum is here. I hope more people come here and experience this, and learn from our past mistakes.”
Expressing his gratitude to the Jewish Heritage Foundation, Dr. A. Sinan Gursoy, a cardiac electrophysiologist, said: “Without the foundation, I would never have gotten the chance to see these things. It’s hard not to be moved here, but I’m a strong believer that good always wins at the end. The degree of sadness as you leave here makes you become stronger, and I think that’s the message.”
Rabbi Katz, who along with his wife is a descendant of the Holocaust from all four sides, agreed with Gursoy’s takeaway. He was astounded to have also found the name of his great-grandfather in the Book of Names and was moved at witnessing the horrors that Yad Vashem categorizes. He honed in on the spiritual element of the experience as well.
“I was most touched by the faith that the Jewish nation had while perishing, like saying Shema Yisrael, which is a belief that G-d puts me in the world and G-d takes me out of the world. Ani ma’amin; ‘I believe’ in Hashem, and this is something that we always have to take along with ourselves. We also have to be aware of the importance of respect and love, and reject hatred and lack of respect. If more people had respected and loved each other, this would never have happened.”
Katz emphasized the importance of unity and how the collection of diverse representation within the delegation underscored this precept. “We have such a special group—Jews, non-Jews, religious, non-religious. We know what it means to unite and to respect each other. This is the message we have to give to the world. We need to respect everyone and every religion. That will bring us to a much better world and the bringing of the Messiah, which should come speedily, bringing everyone to Jerusalem to witness the building of the Third Temple. Then the 6 million will come back and serve our G-d forever.”