A Living Memorial to the Holocaust

Myself, daughter and late cousin Isaac Klein (z'l) identical twin and survivor of Dr. Mengele. (courtesy)
Myself, daughter and late cousin Isaac Klein (z'l) identical twin and survivor of Dr. Mengele. (courtesy)

When I was 16 years old, I had the tremendous opportunity to take part in my first professional summer apprenticeship. There was nothing more exhilarating than being a teenager who got to dress up in “adult clothes”, pack a lunch, travel on the subway into “the city” and receive a paycheck every two weeks…

My summer spent in Battery Park City at the Museum of Jewish Heritage was one of my most formidable life experiences. The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York was intently created as a “living memorial” to the Holocaust. Stories, photos and personal belongings set the backdrop to each impactful exhibit, providing visitors the face and name behind the Shoah.

What also stands out at the Museum is the entire floor dedicated to the history of the Jewish community in North America. At the very end of the exhibit, a beautiful outlook completes the tour with the stunning Lady Liberty outside the window. I remember standing there for the first time, overcome with emotion as I was taken back to a moment so many years before as I imagined my grandparents glancing at this same sight for the very first time as they entered her harbor, with dreams of a better life before them.

As we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day, we are deeply troubled by the wave of hateful and violent anti-Semitic incidents that have plagued our consciousness on a seemingly daily basis for quite some time now. Experts have associated the rise with the current political atmosphere and with other contributing factors. While it all plays a significant role, I believe what that final exhibit represents says so much. For me, much of the atmosphere that has allowed this current wave to gain traction, is forgotten history.

Nearly 75 years since the end of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, this day represents our collective international effort to never forget.

But along with that effort of not forgetting this incredibly tragic sequence of events, culminating in the narrative of the Jewish people with the murder of 6,000,000 Jews, comes the need to not forget the narrative of Jewish communities before and after the Holocaust.

The Xenophobia experienced by Jews was not singular to World War II Europe. The horrors of Hitler’s Nazi rampage across Eastern Europe by far saw hatred of the Jewish people in its most atrocious form but stereotypes and ignorance of the Jewish community has plagued many societies, both Western and Eastern, throughout history. And it is with and because of that context that Jews have consistently stood at the forefront of many of the most necessary of causes here in the United States and in other corners of the globe.

In June of 1964, 2 Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, joined forces with fellow civil rights worker James Chaney, as part of the Freedom Summer campaign, aimed at registering members of the African American community to vote. The 3 men were abducted and murdered In Mississippi to stifle the tremendous campaign they were a part of. Their tragic deaths symbolized the shared bond between 2 groups of people who had experienced hatred against them for far too long.

In that same exhibit in the Museum, their stories are shared. As is the powerful image of Rabbi Heschel and indispensable Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.

Never again means never again and for the Jewish community, it has and never will be, isolated to hatred against the Jewish community but against all peoples.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her fight against gender discrimination, inspiring countless generations of women.

Harvey Milk was a visionary and changed the course of history, even in his very short time in office, as the first openly gay elected official in California history.

On this International Holocaust Memorial Day, we stop to remember the Holocaust, and never forget.

I will never forget.

I will never allow my children to forget.

In May, we have a reason to celebrate. Jewish Heritage Month in the United States is marked each May. I am not proud to say that I did not know such a month existed until very recently. As Jewish Agency emissaries on campuses and in communities, I hope that we take this opportunity to remember as well. To remember the rich history of the Jewish community in the United States. To build genuine relationships with other communities who share similar complexities and challenges within their communities. And to celebrate. Celebrate being a part of a community that has paved the way for some of the most important and necessary of causes in our modern discourse; and not because they were popular but because they were righteous.

We must create an atmosphere where when an ignorant remark is made about Jewish people, it will be our non-Jewish friends who speak up. In the same way where we have and will always show up for our brethren in other communities. Today we are tasked with remembering but what we must keep in mind is not only the remembrance but sharing that collective memory and ensuring it is a living one.

About the Author
Michelle Rojas-Tal is the Jewish Agency's central Shlicha to Hillel International and Director of the Israel Fellows Program. The Jewish Agency for Israel Fellows program brings nearly 80 young emissaries to campuses across North America and close to a dozen across the globe to serve on college campuses. Michelle and her family are currently on Shlichut and living in the greater D.C. area from Jerusalem. She has devoted her life's work to Israel and the Jewish people.
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