Our Greatest Generation

With my cousins at a 1939 Club event honoring them at Chapman University

My very special, beloved survivor cousin just passed away. Isabelle Szneer, a woman of incredible strength, faith, elegance, integrity and kindness. She was a blessing in my life and an inspiration beyond words.

With each passing survivor I feel the passing of an entire generation who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the witnesses one by one leaving us, and the responsibility to continue to share their stories and truths. The Greatest Generation is used to describe the generation that fought WW2, came back and built new lives, families, businesses with integrity, hard work, and pride. I think for the Jewish community, our Greatest Generation are these survivors who came back from the smoke and dust of the Nazi killing machine and rebuilt lives worth living, moving forward with families, businesses, philanthropy and support of Jewish life in America. This combination of history, faith and strength cannot be replaced. It can only be an inspiration for us to learn from and hopefully emulate in our own lives.

I recently sang at a luncheon honoring two remarkable survivors- Judith Altmann and Agnes Vertes. Both work to keep the memory and lessons of the Holocaust alive through genocide education. The theme was “ Embracing Human Dignity and Resilience”. Knowing these two women and their efforts that already reached over 100,000 students is amazing. Their work is so important, and my worry is… who will continue it after they are gone?

My cousin Isabelle Szneer is from our Greatest Generation. Her story is well documented, especially from Chapman University where Prof. Marilyn Harran has taken a special interest in preserving stories of Holocaust survivors and created an incredible Holocaust educational program and museum that is a national treasure. The museum holds artifacts from my beloved teacher, Elie Wiesel and my cousins, Poldi and Isabelle side by side in an exhibit. That is bashert- meant to be.

Isabelle was born in Brussels, Belgium in May 1924 to Polish Jews who had emigrated after WW1. Isabelle, like her parents and sister were officially “ stateless” but lived a comfortable middle-class life until the Nazis rose to power and began their evil plans to exterminate the Jews. Isabelle credits her father with the survival of their family- he was her hero. He helped hide his family through ingenious plans, planning, luck and support from Belgian resistance kept them alive until liberation in Sept. 1944. She told me a story of her dog Bruno who ran away from his new home as they went into hiding, and stayed at their door waiting patiently, until a new owner claimed him, that broke my heart- just one story, just one Holocaust dog story of the many she shared over the years. I made a video of it to preserve her spirit and story.

Towards the end of her life, Isabelle faced physical challenges, unable to walk much, hard to see anything, pains and aches, and most of all missing her beloved husband, Cantor Leopold Szneer who had passed two years before. I would ask her how she was and she always said, “ no complaints, no change” She lived as Poldi did, with integrity, dignity and grace. He would always say, “ Why should I complain? Would it change anything?”

Isabelle and Poldi at the Chapman U Holocaust library exhibit showcasing their contributions in glass cases.

Not to complain, but to go forward was their motto in life. This Greatest Generation appreciated the life they built in America while reminding us of the dangers of anti-Semitism and the consequences of ignoring the hatred. As this Greatest Generation passes, it is up to us to remind the world of the horrors and dangers of anti-Semitism, growing all around us.

These Holocaust survivors will not be around forever. May we learn from them and keep their memories alive through education, song and prayer.

פורסם על ידי ‏‎Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray‎‏ ב- יום ראשון, 24 בנובמבר 2019

About the Author
Fourth generation cantor, second woman to serve a traditional synagogue and founder of the Women Cantors' Network. Deborah studied with Elie Wiesel z"l and continues to be inspired by his teachings. A cantor in Ridgefield, CT, cellist, tallit Swedish weaving embroiderer, mother of 6, grandmother of one. Wife and friend.
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