Monday, April 29, 2013

A Shabbat in Oświęcim

This blog is by Shelby Weltz, a 2012 Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow, who is currently pursuing her M.A. in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Next fall, Shelby will begin a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, where she hopes to integrate her Holocaust Studies background into her future work as a clinician.

I stood in the Auschwitz Jewish Center’s small synagogue, staring at the two Shabbat candles set before me. I was hesitant to proceed. Sure, I knew the blessings and ritual, but the idea of praying in a place like Oświęcim felt more than unnatural; it felt wrong.

The mitzvah of hadlakat nerot, or the commandment to light the Shabbat candles, occupies an important place in my life, not only because it’s a mitzvah reserved for women, but because watching my Grandma light the Shabbat candles is still one of my most poignant childhood memories. Standing by her side, I recall scanning her face as it glowed in the candlelight just before she covered it with her hands while reciting the prayer.  Growing up, I noticed that she would do more than pray beneath her hands; she would cry. Eventually, I learned that my Grandmother survived Auschwitz II-Birkenau and spent the rest of her life crying over those family members who did not.

The wave of hesitation I felt prior to candle lighting was representative of a broader discomfort I felt spending Shabbat in Oświęcim, a place that I regarded not merely as a physical space, but as the personification of evil and the embodiment of dehumanization. To me, Oświęcim was responsible for the murder of my ancestry and was, subsequently, an “entity” that I would forever put on trial. Thus, it still surprises me until this day that our Shabbat, which began with such caution and aversion ultimately ended in transformation and acceptance.

The hesitancy I felt prior to reciting the Kiddush that Friday night contrasted greatly with the qualms that preceded my candle lighting. Whereas the latter emerged from an unwillingness to engage spiritually with my surroundings, the former was the result of a speechlessness incited by an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. After returning from lighting my Shabbat candles, I found my peers – a cohort comprising graduate students of various backgrounds – sitting around a beautifully set table, waiting for me to return to help lead them in welcoming in the Shabbat. A group who had been strangers only three weeks prior was interested, eager, and appreciative enough of my ritual observance to insist on celebrating Shabbat in Oświęcim. This group who watched my struggle with religious commitment for those three weeks assumed that same commitment for themselves. I was stunned. Taking my place at the head of the table, I looked around at a group who made me realize that location has nothing to do with one’s spiritual lifeline; faith in humanity does.

With grapes in hand as an improvised substitute for Kiddush wine, I choked over the words of the Kiddush prayer, holding back the tears of gratitude that had formed in my throat. Ironically, I had experienced my most meaningful Shabbat in a place where I was certain Judaism or spirituality could not exist. Suddenly, it was possible for Oświęcim to embody beauty and more importantly, to embody nothing at all. In my eyes, Oświęcim became merely a place, slowly ceasing to personify the perpetrator it had always been.

Photo: Shelby and her peers in Poland. Courtesy of Shelby Weltz.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Meeting the Person Behind the Photo

This blog comes from our communications assistant, Emily.

Last week, I stepped away from my desk for just a moment and returned to find a message on my phone from a woman named Lily Glass. I recognized the name immediately and hurried to call her back. Anyone who has ever given a tour here at MJH would understand my excitement at having received a message from her.          

On the second floor of the Core Exhibition, there is a photograph of a nun standing with a group of young girls in front of the Maison du Saint Coeur de Marie convent in Belgium. Mrs. Glass was one of the girls. She was hidden by the nuns of this convent during the Holocaust, and was fortunate to have been reunited with her family after the war.
This photograph is featured on the tours of the museum and in classroom presentations as well.  As a former Lipper Intern, I have used this photograph to discuss the experiences of hidden children during the Holocaust countless times. It was wonderful to be able to actually speak with Mrs. Glass on the phone.
She was delighted to hear that her photograph and her experiences have reached thousands of school children throughout the Tri-state area through tours and classroom visits.

At the beginning of a tour, we often ask students what they think it means for our museum to be a Living Memorial to the Holocaust. For me, this phone call embodies that aspect of our Museum perfectly. Our artifacts illustrate how the Holocaust was experienced by individuals, many of whom are still very much a part of our community. We are grateful to those, like Mrs. Glass, who share their stories and entrust us with their photos and their artifacts. 

Photo courtesy of Lily Glass

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Message from the Third Generation

Young Friend and Communications Department alumna Julie L. Cohen was chosen to deliver the message from the Third Generation at last week's Annual Gathering of Remembrance. She spoke eloquently about the importance of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors embracing their legacy, and she identified 3GNY and the Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage as two organizations that fulfill this mandate. But we'll let Julie tell you in her own words. Here is her speech:

I would like to thank the Museum of Jewish Heritage, WAGRO, and the American Gathering for inviting me to participate in this special commemoration.  I am honored to share my thoughts and experience as part of the third generation with everyone here this afternoon.
 For as long as I can remember, the Holocaust has been an ever-present factor in my life.  My grandmother, Mira Bauer, spoke often about her experience during the war, especially her dangerous two week trek across Poland to the doorstep of her mother’s best friend, the righteous gentile, who would shelter her for two years.  However, only from occasional comments, did I learn that my grandfather, Israel Bauer, and his young nephew had jumped from a moving transport headed to a death camp.  They hid, cold and hungry, deep in the forest for nine months.  For school projects, I took every opportunity to write about my grandparents’ experiences and their affect on my life -- It never occurred to me to write about anything else.
 Dr. Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg entitled her film about grand-daughters of survivors -- “I am Carrying the Holocaust in my Pocket.” I can understand why.  No matter where I am or what I’m doing -- the echoes of my family’s experience influence my actions
and world view.
            In college, I was privileged to participate in the Lipper Internship program, where I taught middle and high school students about the Holocaust, and guided them through the Museum’s core exhibition.  This experience crystallized for me the importance of Holocaust education, and of the third generation’s responsibility to honor our grandparents’ legacy.  Two inspiring years of full-time work at the Museum convinced me to eventually volunteer my time and effort in this area.
            A recent UJA study revealed that 73% of New York’s young adult Jews consider “remembering the Holocaust” to be a big part of their Jewish identity.  I realized that it was not a question of whether the third generation wants to be involved, but of how we can get involved in a hands-on way.  We want to devote our time, money and effort to meaningful causes that will have an impact on the world.
I know that those representing the 18 young leadership organizations volunteering here today also understand this mandate.  On behalf of the Museum, I’d like to thank you for your participation.  I’m fortunate to work with two groups that take these goals to heart.
   In 2005, I joined with other founding members to create “3G New York,” a non-profit bringing together grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.  Now 1,500 members strong, we hold Shabbat dinners, film screenings, volunteer opportunities and social gatherings. Survivors share their stories at our annual intergenerational brunch. Our most ambitious educational program to date empowers grandchildren to learn our family histories and to share them in school classrooms.  We have reached more than one thousand students in over fifty schools in the New York area – and this is just the beginning.  As the conduits for our grandparents’ stories, we eliminate the generation gap and help students understand this tragic chapter in our history.  3Gs share a strong desire to connect and mobilize.  From Boston to Melbourne, many other local 3G groups have formed across the country and the world, engaging their respective communities.
             I first became involved with the Young Friends group as a member of the Museum staff in my early 20s.  I’ve met many grandchildren of survivors at events over the years, and I continue to be impressed with the large number of young people who gather to support the Museum’s important mission.  It’s powerful exhibitions, moving stories and treasured artifacts bring our grandparents’ experiences to life.  This is what sets the Young Friends apart from other similar groups in the area -- the beautiful and meaningful institution with a wealth of history and culture that it calls home.  There is no other place like this in New York, and no better place to serve as the center of activity for the third generation.
 My grandmother passed away only two short months ago at age 94.  I am grateful that she shared her stories, life lessons and wisdom with me, and that I was able to tell her about my involvement with the Young Friends and 3GNY.  I find great fulfillment in participating in these groups, and continue to form strong bonds and lasting friendships through them.  I urge you to encourage your children and grandchildren to get involved with a local 3G group.  After all, it’s now our responsibility to pass our grandparents’ legacy on to the fourth generation.  In that way, we will not only continue to honor the martyrs and survivors – but we will also give you many reasons to “Shep Nachas” just as my grandparents did for me.
 Thank you.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Lessons for the Living

During this week of Holocaust Remembrance, it has been my honor to hear about the experiences of survivors who managed to maintain their humanity during unimaginable terror and become forces for good in the world. Learning how to put hardship, cold, and hunger into perspective is a lesson taught early and often at the Museum, thanks to the generous words of our survivors.
It is one thing to put hardships behind you; it is quite another to examine this trauma and re-emerge into the light. Susan Beilby Magee has written an important book on this very subject by looking at the life and art of Kalmon Aron, an émigré artist who was an art prodigy in Riga when the Nazis invaded Latvia, massacring thousands of Jews, including his parents. He survived four years in slave labor and concentration camps by drawing portraits of guards for morsels of food, saving him from starvation.  After the war, he made his way to the Vienna Fine Arts Academy where he received his Masters in Fine Art. He then left Europe, finding sanctuary in California in 1949.

Susan first became acquainted with Kalmon as a little girl when he came to her house at her mother’s invitation to paint Susan’s portrait. From there, a friendship was born. Their friendship extended through six decades, and then, in 2003, out of the blue he asked her to write his story.  A prolific painter, Kalmon became one of California’s leading portraitists, winning commissions to paint such luminaries as Ronald Reagan, Henry Miller, and Andre Previn.

I asked Susan what people can learn from Kalmon’s experiences, which she will share at an event at the Museum Wednesday, April 10. She had many responses, each spiritual and pragmatic in its own way.

1) Stay committed to your passion. Kalmon never gave up his love of art. It nurtured and sustained him even in his darkest moments.
2) Maintain your integrity no matter what’s going on.
3) No matter the challenge, never give up hope. Kalman was able to get back in to the world and paint despite the losses he suffered.
4) Use your resources to overcome challenges. 

She concluded by saying that Kalmon’s story is universal. “It is relevant for those who have witnessed genocide in any culture and it applies to women who have been victimized in their homes, and by children who have seen brutality.” Kalmon has taken the time to look inward and find his inner light. 

Susan, who in my short conversations I can tell seeks to help others to find their inner light, is a warm and intelligent presence whose discussion of Kalmon’s life will no doubt be as illuminating as it is inspiring. If you miss her Wednesday night, she will be at the Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lex on April 11 and at the USHMM April 14.