Passing the story on

An intimate gathering between a Holocaust survivor and new immigrants raises questions of how Yom Hashoah should be commemorated.

yehuda zilberstrass 370 (photo credit: steven Winston)
yehuda zilberstrass 370
(photo credit: steven Winston)
For many of the young new immigrants who went to hear 90-yearold Holocaust survivor Yehuda Zilberstrass tell his story on Sunday night, it was the first time they were marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.
The organizer of the gathering was Zikaron Basalon (meaning “Memory in the Living Room”), an organization that arranges for survivors to come to people’s homes for an intimate discussion of their story. This particular event was arranged in conjunction with ConnecTLV, a Jewish Agency initiative that works to bring young new immigrants together and help them better integrate into Israeli society.
“We thought about an up-to-date way to mark Yom Hashoah, which is traditionally [observed] through official ceremonies with national character,” says ConnecTLV director Shay Shankman.
While the 10 a.m. siren and the ceremony held at Yad Vashem and throughout the country commemorate the day, Shankman says he wanted to offer a personal experience to an audience of third-generation young Jews.
“[We want to] develop connections between memories from the most tragic period in Jewish history to our lives today in Israel 2013,” he says.
The event began with Zilberstrass reciting kaddish. He lit one candle before inviting others to come up and light the remaining candles.
Around 30 people attended the event.
Accompanying Zilberstrass were his wife, Yona, and two of his grandchildren.
Originally from Poland, he came to Israel 65 years ago after his liberation from the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. When he arrived in 1948, through Italy, he was promptly handed a gun, trained for two days, and then sent to fight in the War of Independence.
He recounted his days in the Warsaw Ghetto, how he was then taken first to the Majdanek concentration camp and later to the Wieliczka salt mines, and how he was tattooed in Mauthausen-Gusen. He spoke of rampant disease, starvation and beatings by the German soldiers. He told of the many times he could have died but didn’t. Once, he escaped being shot in prison only because the guards were changing shifts.
When he was liberated, he weighed 28 kilos. For many, liberation was as much a battle for survival as the camps had been.
Well-meaning American troops gave the refugees too much food – butter, cream, sausages – and this led to many of them dying because their systems couldn’t handle it after their prolonged starvation. But Zilberstrass had suffered a bout of dysentery and was put in the hospital. He said this was what kept him from eating too much and saved his life.
It was not only his story that left an impression on the audience, but his presence as well. He spoke only in Hebrew, and although the audience was a mix of fluent Hebrew speakers and people with little knowledge of the language, his body language conveyed his feelings and intentions.
In a discussion afterward, one girl said that watching him speak had reminded her of the “joy of life” that her own grandfather, a survivor of two concentration camps, had had, and of the optimism he had maintained after such a horrific experience. Coming to this event, she said, helped her reinvigorate the memory of her grandfather.
“I think the ceremony [at Yad Vashem] is beautiful,” she continued, “but there is something impersonal [about it], and this is much more personal.”
Gwen Diamond, a 24-year-old American, said that in the last few years she had commemorated the day at her university.
“We would gather in front of the library and read the names, light candles, and some members of the community would give speeches,” she said. “But being in Israel, it’s different because it’s not your community, it’s the whole country.”
The discussion after Zilberstrass’s story revealed a tapestry of opinions among the immigrants – who came from all over the world – regarding what living in Israel meant to them.
“In my opinion, Israel should be a Jewish state,” a Chilean girl from the audience volunteered. “But you can hardly find a religious person. For most haredim [ultra-Orthodox], we are not religious – for everyone, the Jewish state is something different.”
A Turkish girl noted that “a lot of people say in the world that the Jewish nation got Israel because of the Shoah,” and added that “the Jewish people always had problems. There was no one that protected us in the end.”
“This is part of our story as Jews,” one young man in the audience said. “[Just like] the Purim story is part of our nation’s narrative, this is part of our story, but as a world issue, I think it will diminish over time.”
Zilberstrass said the important thing was to remember the Holocaust and pass that memory on to future generations.
“Many people don’t believe [the Holocaust happened], because it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
As for religion, he was adamant that he did not believe in God.
“There was a religious Jew, and a German came and cut his clothes, cut his peyos [side curls] and cut his beard,” Zilberstrass said, explaining that after everything he had seen, he could not believe.
Still, he discussed the difference between religious tradition and believing in God, noting that he participated in traditions because it was enjoyable.
“I am a simple man,” he said. “If someone asks me to come to a Mimouna [a festival that Sephardi Jews celebrate after Passover], I’ll go, just as if someone asks me to go to a church, I’ll go, too.”
A young girl from Ukraine said there had never been any kind of Holocaust Remembrance Day in her home country.
“I didn’t know Yom Hashoah existed until I came here,” she said.
Zilberstrass stressed that it was most important first to be human and then to be tolerant – to commemorate the six million and to feel lucky that one could hear personal stories. Commemorating this day, he said, was “an opportunity to take time for yourself – what kind of Jewish person do I want to be?”