Young people resolve to be ‘living memory’ for last of Holocaust survivors

Inbar Carmi, 21, and her sister spontaneously decided to be hosts for a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon after attending one on Monday.

 Holocaust survivor Yoetz Doitch gives his eye-witness testimony in a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon on Holocaust Remembrance Day. (photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)
Holocaust survivor Yoetz Doitch gives his eye-witness testimony in a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(photo credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

In one of the remaining traditional Beit Hakerem gardens in Jerusalem, with birds chirping in the big shady trees, a group of 15 mostly young people gathered on Thursday to hear the testimony of Holocaust survivor Yoetz Doitch.

Inbar Carmi, 21, and her sister spontaneously decided to be hosts for a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon (remembrance in the living room) – where a Holocaust survivor gives his or her testimony to an intimate group on Holocaust Remembrance Day – after attending a similar gathering two days earlier.

“Their generation is disappearing, and already there is a generation after mine that knows little about the Holocaust,” Carmi said. “It is my duty to pass on the information. I disagree with the way we learn about it in school. The feeling is that when the siren goes off, people feel forced to stop, but they don’t want to go [to school for the ceremony]. That person-to-person connection is very important; to personally hear their stories is very important. Commemoration is a more personal thing.”

Zikaron BaSalon, a social initiative that takes place around the world on Holocaust Remembrance Day as well as throughout the year, was born out of the understanding that modern society’s connection with the memory of the Holocaust has significantly deteriorated.

“This may be the last time to hear eyewitness accounts,” said Reut Kokia, 23, who attended the gathering at the Carmi home. “I wish we could have these encounters throughout the year too, but it is very important to participate in this.”

 Holocaust survivor Yoetz Doitch gives his eye-witness testimony in a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon on Holocaust Remembrance Day. (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY) Holocaust survivor Yoetz Doitch gives his eye-witness testimony in a gathering of Zikaron BaSalon on Holocaust Remembrance Day. (credit: JUDITH SUDILOVSKY)

Along with giving his audience a detailed history lesson, Doitch, who was born in Zagreb, which was then part of Yugoslavia, recounted how after his father was arrested, he escaped as a three-year-old with his mother and two older brothers on Rosh Hashanah 1941, eventually reaching Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Although Doitch was young, he remembers water seeping into their boat as they crossed a river to escape, and how the men aboard used small tin cans in a desperate attempt to remove it.

“I thought we were going to drown,” Doitch said. “People remember traumas from age zero.”

The visa to Uruguay that his father had applied for to rescue his family arrived the day after his arrest, he said.

Doitch’s father was imprisoned and murdered in the Jasenovac concentration camp run by the Ustaše Nazi collaborator regime in Croatia, where Serbian, Jewish and Roma prisoners were killed with knives, hammers and axes.

Doitch also remembered the goodness of the people who helped them: his father’s secretary, who kept their documents, photographs, certificates and some of their valuables; the woman who caught them hiding among her dairy cows and brought them fresh milk and bread to eat, and told them to escape toward Italy, where despite restrictions imposed on Jews, fascist leader and Nazi ally Benito Mussolini resisted Nazi demands to turn over Italian Jews; the train conductor, who upon seeing they had no tickets for the train realized they were refugees, and brought them food and told them how to reach those helping relocate refugees; and the Italian family that sheltered them in their farmhouse even though they knew they were Jewish.

“If people say they didn’t know what was happening, that is not true,” Doitch said. “Those who wanted to know, knew.”

This year for the first time, the Combat Antisemitism Movement, Zikaron BaSalon, and the World Zionist Organization joined to host a global online conversation with the last generation of Holocaust survivors by digitally bringing them into the living rooms of viewers around the world. Events broadcast online took place in Australia, Mexico, Poland, the US and Israel.

The digital gathering also included statements from international leaders addressing the need for Holocaust education in preventing Holocaust denial and antisemitism worldwide, and the importance of speaking with Holocaust survivors while it is still possible.

Such an event allows people who do not have access to Holocaust survivors to listen to firsthand witness accounts, said Combat Antisemitism Movement CEO Sacha Roytman Dratwa.

“This is perhaps the last chance to physically interact with a Holocaust survivor for many people around the world,” he said. “As Holocaust denial, trivialization and appropriation are rising, it is vital that as many people around the world as possible hear from a Holocaust survivor firsthand about their experiences and the historical truth of the Holocaust.”

The event drew 100,000 viewers across the world, said Roytman Dratwa.

“We must then accept the torch of remembrance from them to ensure future generations who will live in a world without survivors that the Holocaust is not forgotten, manipulated or denied,” he said.

Zach Singerman, 17, founder and director of Gen Z Jews who was the last speaker at the digital event, said he realized his responsibility to pick up that torch the day a terrorist walked into his grandmother’s synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people.

“As an American Jew, I wasn’t equipped to confront what was happening,” Singerman said. “Generation Z as a generation will be the last to know Holocaust survivors personally. By personally witnessing and hearing their stories, my Generation Z will be able to be a living memory for them.”

From Mexico, Holocaust survivor Luis Opatowsky, originally from Belgium, told listeners about his experiences as a young child, how he was first “humiliated, beaten and discriminated against” before being taken to a concentration camp where he was separated from his family.

“For me, it is sad to speak about the Holocaust, but it is necessary for everyone to know what happened in the Holocaust,” he said.

Opatowsky urged young people to promise to not be indifferent in the face of incitement to hatred, and called on them to speak out against fanaticism and never tolerate racism or antisemitism.

“You see what is happening in places like Iraq, Syria and Ukraine,” he said. “Hate leads to genocide. Intolerance is the product of a lack of education and ignorance.”

For some survivors, the heavy burden of giving their testimony was emotionally taxing. After speaking to a large group of teenagers who asked a lot of questions on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, one survivor called Zikaron BaSalon host Eden Israeli to cancel their gathering.

“She was too emotionally wiped out, and she also sounded very weak and tired,” Israeli said. “She didn’t expect so many questions and for it to bring up so many memories. So they feel a burden to tell their story and come and be a witness. But also it is so difficult to remember everything and to be reminded of their childhood, because all these people were children when it happened. I could hear in her voice how tired she was, and how disappointed she was that she wasn’t going to be able to make it tonight.”