Yad Vashem's Bar/Bat Mitzvah program keeps Holocaust memory alive

At Yad Vashem, concern over how the Holocaust would remain an integral part of the Jewish consciousness once there were no longer any survivors prompted the start of the twinning program.

 ARON WELLS of the UK studies Yad Vashem’s materials on the identity of the Shoah victim with whom he was twinned, Aron Gotlib. (photo credit: Courtesy Wells Family)
ARON WELLS of the UK studies Yad Vashem’s materials on the identity of the Shoah victim with whom he was twinned, Aron Gotlib.
(photo credit: Courtesy Wells Family)

Many Holocaust survivors who missed out on having a bar mitzvah because they were in a concentration camp, labor camp or ghetto, in hiding or on the run, eventually celebrate this rite of passage when they are 83-years-old.

For them, especially those who lost their nearest and dearest and built families of their own in Israel or elsewhere in the Jewish world, being surrounded by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren is the epitome of survival – the construction stone of continuity.

In Hebrew, the word for stone is “even,” also an acronym for the words “av” (father), “ben” (son) and “neched” (grandson).

At Yad Vashem, concern over how the Holocaust would remain an integral part of the consciousness of the Jewish people once there were no longer any survivors to give firsthand testimony, prompted the introduction in 2014 of a twinning program, whereby boys and girls of bar and bat mitzvah age would be twinned with a child murdered in the Holocaust, and provided with all the available data about that child and his or her parents – where they lived, the challenges they faced, where and how they died, and photographs if there were any.

IT IS difficult to imagine a bar mitzvah celebration during the Holocaust, but as with almost everything else, there were of course rare exceptions.

 A MOTHER and daughter participate in a twinning ceremony in Yad Vashem's Hall of Names. (credit: YAD VASHEM) A MOTHER and daughter participate in a twinning ceremony in Yad Vashem's Hall of Names. (credit: YAD VASHEM)

David Bergman, a Holocaust survivor who was deported to Auschwitz and later transferred to Dachau and Gross-Rosen camps, in testimony that he gave to Yad Vashem many years later, said: “I was very much looking forward to this day of bar mitzvah. I had several years of preparation for this event. My parents even had all their gifts set aside. Indeed, that day, I became a man heading for an unknown destination. The day was spent in a cattle train. My father had a bottle of wine that he had secretly taken aboard, risking his life to do so. But this event meant so much to him – he felt it was worth the sacrifice. He passed the bottle of wine around, and everyone made a toast to me – and that was how I celebrated my bar mitzvah.”

Another survivor story not related to Yad Vashem but with a similar purpose, is that of emeritus science professor of Tel Aviv University Joachim Joseph, whose clandestine bar mitzvah was celebrated in Bergen-Belsen.

Rabbi Simon Dasberg had smuggled a miniature Torah scroll into the camp. It was from this scroll that the young Joachim read his bar mitzvah portion. Afterward, Dasberg gave him the scroll as a gift, on condition of a promise that if he survived, he would tell the story.

Several years later, when Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, was deciding on what he would take with him into space, during a visit to the home of Prof. Joseph, he happened to see a wooden box on the mantelpiece, and asked what was in it. Joseph told him the story and showed him the scroll. Ramon whose mother and grandmother were Auschwitz survivors, immediately asked whether he could take the scroll with him as a symbol of Jewish survival and continuity. Joseph agreed, but the Columbia space shuttle on which Ramon was a crew member disintegrated on February 1, 2003, as it was reentering earth, and the scroll was destroyed.

When the story of the scroll became public, it resonated deeply with Modi’in businessman Neil Rubinstein, who made aliyah from South Africa more than 30 years ago.

In an effort to have a complete replica made of the miniature Torah of Bergen-Belsen, Rubinstein initiated the Ilan Ramon Global Sefer Torah Project, and made a promotional video in which Ilan Ramon is seen floating in space and also talking about the scroll representing the ability of the Jewish people to survive.

At the time, both Ilan’s wife, Rona Ramon, and president Shimon Peres were still alive, and both appear in the video, with Peres saying: “Not only a human being can carry the scroll, but the scroll can carry a human being.”

The inauguration of the replica of the miniature scroll was scheduled to take place last year, on the 18th anniversary of Ilan Ramon’s death, but COVID-19 got in the way, and the inauguration eventually took place in May at the Ilan Ramon School in Modi’in.

However, says Rubinstein, the scroll is not intended for Modi’in youngsters alone. It is available for use by any boy or girl celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Part of the ceremony will be hearing the stories of both the replica and the original.

AS FOR the Yad Vashem Twinning Program, boys and girls are linked to the past through being bonded with the memory of an individual child who was murdered during the Holocaust. Altogether, 1.2 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust. Most did not reach bat or bar mitzvah age.

Families that have participated in the program describe it as a meaningful experience that deeply connects them to the Jewish people, says Simmy Allen, a spokesman for Yad Vashem.

He cites the example of Hallie Kopel, a bat mitzvah girl who twinned with a Shoah victim and said afterward: “It is important to know where you’re from so that you know where you’re going.”

Debra Rinn, the mother of a bar mitzvah boy who had his ceremony at Yad Vashem, says: “It was very special for us to share our son’s bar mitzvah with the memory of a boy who was murdered in the Holocaust.”

Not everyone who wants to participate in the program is able to come to Jerusalem in order to do so, especially during the pandemic. For them, Yad Vashem has an online option, in which Aron Wells chose to participate.

After making the arrangements, Aron’s father, Adam, tweeted: “My son Aron was paired with Aron Gotlib from Poland, who was born in 1933. Aron was murdered with his mother, Fela, when he was only nine years old. I don’t want Aron Gotlib’s name and beautiful face to just be consigned to history. He deserved to have his bar mitzvah and celebrate with his family like millions of others. On my Aron’s bar mitzvah, we will celebrate on his behalf, too.”

Those youngsters who are able to participate in the program by celebrating their rite of passage in Jerusalem are taken with their families on a special tour of the Holocaust History Museum and the Yad Vashem campus that focuses on youth and children during the Holocaust.

The tour emphasizes in particular the challenges faced by the Jewish family unit during World War II, and the meaning of the bar/bar mitzvah in Judaism and during the Shoah.

Within the twinning program, in advance of the visit, a search is made in Yad Vashem’s online Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names to find a “twin” – a Jewish girl or boy murdered during the Holocaust, who shares a biographical element with the celebrant or his/her family, such as first name, family name, birthday or place of birth.

At the end of the tour, a respectful and sensitive ceremony is held, during which celebrants are presented with a twinning kit, which comprises a certificate confirming their participation in the program, historical materials connected to their “twin,” and a study pamphlet. The bar/bat mitzvah boy or girl also takes it upon himself or herself to remember their “twin” as they leave their childhood behind to become full-fledged members of their respective Jewish communities.

In the case of those youngsters unable to come to Jerusalem, the twinning kit is sent to wherever they are in the world, and the commemoration of Holocaust victims within the framework of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations is conducted within the local community, which in a sense spreads the message of remembrance to a wider circle.

Since 2014, more than 1,000 young men and women have participated in the program, taking an active role in passing the torch of remembrance to the next generations.

Over the years, Yad Vashem has received a great deal of correspondence from families about the enormous influence the program has made on their sons or daughters, and about the special and poignant ways the youngsters continue to remember their “twin.”

Most Jewish families, no matter how assimilated, have a bar or bat mitzvah celebration of some kind, so as not to deny their children the opportunities that their more religiously traditional friends take for granted.

For the less religious youngsters and their families, the Yad Vashem Twinning Program is a means of connecting with Jewish history by honoring Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.

In traditional and religious families, it is customary for boys and men on the anniversary of their bar mitzvah to read their Torah portion at the appropriate Sabbath service. In so doing, they also remember their “twin.”

To join the program or learn more about it, contact [email protected]

Upcoming online remembrance events  

Next week, on January 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as declared by the UN, Yad Vashem will launch two online events aimed at giving identities to the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

One is the IRemember Wall, which, like the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program, links people with a victim of the Holocaust.

Each person who joins the IRemember Wall is randomly linked to one of the names of more than 4,800,000 victims whose names appear in Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. The names of people who join the project then appear on the IRemember Wall together with that of the murdered Jew.

People who join have the option of choosing a specific name of a family member or anyone else about whom they know whose name is in the database, and to be matched with that person.

This program is carried out in partnership with Facebook (Meta), which, as in previous years, will use its platform and resources in order to encourage global awareness of this project, which can be accessed in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, German and Russian.

Iris Rosenberg, director of Yad Vashem’s Communications Division, says that by partnering with Facebook International, Yad Vashem is able to reach a wider international audience, which is a crucial factor in maintaining the memory of the Holocaust and memorializing the victims as individual human beings.

Yad Vashem is also launching an online exhibition, “Remember your new name,” which is based on the false names that Jews gave themselves and their families when trying to escape persecution and death. For those able to secure forged papers, which gave them false identities, this was a daily battle for survival in a hostile environment, requiring constant adjustment to changing circumstances.

Survivor Brenda Pluczenik Schor, in her memoir, wrote: “I often used to wake the children in the middle of the night, to check if they remembered their new names even when half asleep. I would repeat over and over again that no one could know that we were Jewish.”

Although they could move around freely on their forged papers, Jews lived in constant fear of being discovered.

This new exhibition helps to create greater understanding of what it meant to live on false papers during the Holocaust, especially the fear that a child would forget to be cautious.

On the other hand, many Jewish children who were sheltered in convents and monasteries and raised as Catholics did not forget that they were Jewish.

When chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog went to Europe in 1946 and visited the Catholic institutions where it was known that there were Jewish children, he asked that they be returned to their people.

The nuns and priests asked him how he would know which of the children were Jewish. He asked for the children to be assembled and in a loud voice recited the Shema. Most of the Jewish children, other than those who had been babies, responded, as a result of which he was able to rescue 500 Jewish children and bring them back to the fold.