Our community has lost a giant. Izzy Arbeiter z”l, who died Oct. 29 at the age of 96, was the survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Attending his funeral and Shiva has been a blessing in itself; to witness the outpouring of memories, to retell the impact he had – as a fierce advocate on behalf of his fellow survivors’ needs, and as a passionate transmitter of memory of the Shoah to future generations.
As co-founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial and in many other ways, he had a long and deep history working in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, and sometimes challenging us to do more.
I won’t retell all the great Izzy stories here. I have no special claim to them as one of thousands in our community who have had the privilege of knowing him. But I witnessed firsthand a quintessential Izzy story several years ago, of which I was reminded at his funeral on Nov. 1.
In 2017, the New England Holocaust Memorial was desecrated not once, but twice in the span of a summer. The second time the glass was shattered, days after the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., the person responsible was a teen from Malden.
The morning after the attack, the community gathered at the memorial. Mayor Marty Walsh, who – like every mayor of Boston since Ray Flynn – had embraced the sacred responsibility of stewarding this site, invited Malden Mayor Gary Christenson to join Izzy, myself, leaders from the Jewish community, and our partners. Christenson expressed being “completely disheartened” to learn that the vandal was from his community. Izzy took the mayor on a tour of the memorial and shared his own experience, as he had with thousands of others before. It was the beginning of an amazing and inspiring friendship.
In the weeks that followed, Christenson came back to the memorial with Malden students to meet with Izzy, Janet Applefield, and Anna Ornstein – all Holocaust survivors in our community – to listen, learn, and to take action. One of the students, a young Muslim woman, told them: “We have seen the damage hate and intolerance can cause. We have experienced it ourselves.” She continued with a written declaration from the students: “We are here to come together to try and reverse hate. We will not stand for hate. We will come together with love, peace, and dignity; to celebrate our differences, because that is what truly brings us together. In order to start the healing of the damage caused by hate, we have come here tonight to honor victims of the Holocaust.”
Izzy responded: “To see you all here, to talk to you, to get to know you, to see the diversity of the students, gives me such hope for the future.” He went on to speak in front of 500 students at Malden High School, so they too could bear witness and hear his story.
As we buried Izzy, I found myself standing next to Mayor Christenson. He talked about his close friendship with Izzy. The dinners and lunches they shared over the years, visiting him and his wife Anna and hearing this message of hope right up until these final weeks. “I love Izzy,” he said to me. I was profoundly moved to witness the mayor expressing that love of Izzy one last time, as he performed the special mitzvah of participating in the burial, shoveling dirt into Izzy’s grave.
There have been hundreds of stories shared since Izzy’s passing. The relationship he built with German leaders, and the powerful personal reflections shared by Nicole Menzenbach, Consul General of Germany to New England, on behalf of all those who held her role and became his friends over the years. My predecessor, Nancy Kaufman, spoke at the Shiva about when Izzy and fellow Holocaust survivor Stephan Ross z”l (who passed away last year) insisted, and convinced everyone, to move the community Yom HaShoah gathering from Newton to Faneuil Hall because it needed to be in the heart of the city and be open to the entire Greater Boston community, not just Jews. Izzy and Stephan realized their dream of building the New England Holocaust Memorial just steps away, embedding it into the fabric of Boston for all to experience.
I have my own personal memory, of my second week here, when Izzy and I had lunch and he took me through the memorial for my first time. Over lunch, he then extracted – quite willingly on my part – a “blood oath” (his words; though no blood was shed there was some playfulness with a butter knife) that we at JCRC would always prioritize work with civic leaders and education beyond the Jewish community at the memorial, and that we would always stand up to neo-Nazis and others who perpetuate antisemitism and hate in Boston.
That’s who Izzy was – always there to share his story of survival with one more person. Finding hope in young people of all backgrounds who could receive his experience and be inspired to act morally in the world today. Challenging leaders to do more and to ensure that even as we approach the end of this period in which the survivors walk amongst us, we will always place the Holocaust, its memory, and moral calling at the center of our city and our collective conscience.
Izzy Arbeiter’s memory is and will continue to be a blessing, not just for the work he did, but for the work we are charged by him to continue doing.
Jeremy Burton is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.