Just recently a Holocaust Survivor in his 90s spoke to a group of 12- and 13-year-old Jewish Americans, telling them his story and answering their questions. The conversation went somewhat like this:
Survivor: ‘I was lucky enough to be sent (without his parents or brother) on a Kindertransport from Berlin to France.’
Student: ‘And then in France you were safe?’
Survivor: ‘For a bit but then the Nazis invaded France and we had to leave where we were and go to what was then “Free France.” And have people help and hide us.’
Student: ‘So then you were safe?’
Survivor: ‘Not exactly. There was so much anti-Semitism, and no one knew who was collaborating with the Nazis, so we still had to hide and pretend who we were.’
Student: ‘Who was there to help you?’
Survivor: ‘There was a very special Pastor and his wife, that helped to save children Jewish children but at great risk to him and his family. There weren’t many like him.’
Student: ‘Did you stay in France?’
Survivor: ‘No. Eventually, all of France was taken over by the Nazis so staying in the village, became too dangerous and so at 14 me and two friends crossed the border into neutral Switzerland.’
Student: ‘And so then you were safe?’
Survivor: ‘Safe from the Nazis, yes. But we had to still hide who we were and struggle to figure out how to stay alive as the war was still going on and it couldn’t be known that we were Jewish.’
Teacher: ‘What is something you can tell these students today?’
Survivor: ‘Always help those in need. Always be an upstander.’
This conversation and so many other similar ones, have fortunately been told repeatedly over the last 30 to 40 some odd years of Holocaust Education in my home state of NJ (and hopefully elsewhere) for young Americans, Jewish and non Jewish, to learn the lessons of the Holocaust directly from those that survived it.
During the Holocaust the helpers – the upstanders – were very difficult to find. Those that were very fortunate to find aid, did so with so much risk to them and those that were saving them. They hid in barns, attics, under floorboards and behind makeshift walls for years on end with relatively no food or necessities. And those few that were able to have the assistance to hide successfully were the very fortunate ones – most did not have that opportunity.
During the Holocaust there were very few Jews or others that were able to escape Nazi Germany, and then Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and all the other nations under the Third Reich. And even if they had the ability to leave – they had no where to go. No where to turn to. Most nations had closed their doors completely and would not let them in.
During the Holocaust those very, very few refugees that were able to get out of war-torn Europe, arrived in new lands that were foreign to them with little to no help at all. There was no one there to assist them with food, clothing, or housing. There was no guidance to help them adjust to this strange world to which they had just arrived.
During the Holocaust helping those in need was of little to non-existence. Over the years the lesson has been to “Never Forget,” so that it “Never Happens Again.” And now in 2022, as we watch the horrific news out to the Ukraine, I am constantly faced with the burning question, have we learned the true lesson of “Never Forget.”
What we are seeing today in the Ukraine is beyond tragic and horrifying. For many of us that have been a part of the “Never Forget” movement of the Holocaust, there is a whole other layer of disappointment that we feel knowing the history of the region and all that happened there almost 80 years ago. I am not trying to say that the current situation is exactly the same as the Holocaust, but I would be remised to not recognize the horrible similarities.
Watching images of war, displaced persons, and the fight of the Ukrainians to survive has caused so many to want to scream out in anger, let us never forget. Listening to President Zelenskyy address the United States’ Congress brought me to tears, as it evoked so many feelings of what the landscape had looked like in Europe as nations crumbled under the Nazi forces.
It’s easy to feel defeated; it’s easy to say, “Never Forget” isn’t working. But the reality is, if going back to the conversation with the survivor, the lessons from the classes are ringing true throughout the world. Along with the terrible images of bombed hospitals and theatres, pictures of families being separated, and of the growing number of casualties we have also seen so much more.
We’ve seen images of strollers being left at train stations, along with diapers and wipes for families to use as they arrive carrying their babies with them. There’s been food collections and distributions for refugees arriving out of the Ukraine so that they are met with meals as they arrive, somewhat bewildered. I even read of two college students here in the United States that have set up a website that can show escaping Ukrainians safe places in which they could seek shelter at in the countries that they are arriving in.
When my grandmother used to describe to me what it was like to be a Jew in America during World War II and the Holocaust, she would say there was nothing they could do; she would use the world helpless. Yet Jewish and non-Jewish organizations today are doing so much more. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest (the community I work and live in), sent multiple truckloads of flashlights, first aid kits, hand sanitizer, masks and other necessities to those fleeing their homeland. In addition, the CEO and President of the organization went all the way to Poland and then to the border of Ukraine to see what was happening firsthand and do whatever they could to assist. And this is just one example – I have heard of hundreds more from around the world just like this.
Finally in 2022, these refugees have somewhere to go. Whether it be Israel, which was nothing more than an unrequited dream in 1939 or other nations throughout the world that never would have accepted them back in the days of the Nazis – Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians, if they are able to leave, have places to go. Last week, there were Purim parties around Israel, Krakow and Berlin, as I am sure other places as well, during which Ukrainian Jewish Refugees could, despite the trying times, find a way to celebrate. Imagine that – almost 85 years after Kristallnacht – Jews celebrated Purim once more in Berlin and Krakow – and in the democratic state of Israel. This is the definition of “Never Forget.” I am well aware that there is so much death, destruction, and loss associated with the current Russian attack on the Ukraine – I am also aware that Holocaust Education has worked. Millions of people are taking action and helping where they can.