Our revered survivors are leaving us, taking with them an important link to Holocaust remembrance. Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman recognized this loss and established the Holocaust Legacy Foundation.
The mission was to ensure its critical lessons were carried forward to future generations. That heavy burden was placed on the shoulders of Jewish teenagers who, as Foundation Fellows, were tasked with perpetuating the remembrance. Could teens enmeshed in the mental turmoil of school, college entry, and social interaction carry this heavy burden?
To find the answer, I had a long conversation with my grandson, Adam Zamansky, who was one of the teens chosen as a Holocaust Legacy Fellow. At 6 foot 4 inches, Adam may appear to have crossed the threshold to adulthood, but he still has the mental wanderings of a 17-year-old. What would his reactions be to the Holocaust Legacy tour and the intense brutality the happened there?
The tour started in Berlin, where the Fellows experienced the bustling city and learned about the major involvement of Jews through centuries of German history. It was also in Berlin that the Fellows visited the Holocaust Museum that is named the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and heard about the Third Reich’s “Final Solution” at the 1942 Wannsee Conference that condemned millions of Jews to death. There, Adam grasped the magnitude of that historic moment, and said, “Humans should not be empowered to determine life and death.”
After a sleepy bus ride, the Fellows arrived in Warsaw where they learned about the centuries-old, extensive Jewish community in Poland and where the ghetto was used as a killing field. They saw the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, which remains witness to the tens of thousands of Jews who were exported from there to the death camp of Treblinka or died of starvation.
But Warsaw also was the place where they learned how Jews valiantly fought back against their German oppressors. They visited the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in commemoration of Jewish resistance.
Adam’s strongest reaction to the Warsaw Ghetto was the cruel injustice of how Jewish children had to scavenge for food, often from garbage cans, in order to survive. Adam’s pointed comment about this was, “German behavior defied humanity.”
Their visit to Treblinka did not prepare them for their tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of the teens, certainly Adam, had seen pictures of these death camps and were familiar with the horrors that took place there. But a picture did not prepare Adam for standing on the railroad tracks where Jews were unloaded from freight cars to be led to their deaths. He saw the place where the direction Jews leaving the trains determined life or death: death to the left, life to the right.
Adam spoke, with difficulty, about the absolute terror of Jews struggling for a few more minutes of life in the gas chamber. Heavy stuff for a 17-year-old.
The last camp the Fellows visited on the tour was Majdanek. It was unique because it was liberated by the Russians before the Germans could destroy evidence of their mass murders. It was left largely intact. For Adam, Majdanek was particularly graphic with its piles of ashes and bones that bore silent witness to the thousands of Jews burned in the ovens there. Adam indicated his inability or unwillingness – to fully confront the remnants of death when he said, “It took 700 degrees to burn Jews!”
The leaders of the Holocaust Legacy Foundation recognized how psychologically devastating repeated exposure to the horrors of the Holocaust could be for the Jewish teens in their charge. To offset this, the group would meet every evening for a debriefing of the day’s events, a mental decompression.
In the farewell dinner before their flight home, the Fellows were asked about what would be their role in Holocaust remembrance. There was a strong consensus that along with appreciating the honor of being selected, they had incurred a special responsibility. Ingrained in them at the tour’s end was the determination to stop anti-Semitism, to combat Holocaust denial and, above all, to continue remembrance of the Holocaust as a sacred trust.
In the course of our conversation, Adam delivered a powerful lesson he learned on his trip. His words ring out to the Jewish community with passion and promise: “I visited Treblinka and look at me, I am here. They didn’t win. I felt empowered.”
Herb Belkin writes from Swampscott.