Alice Herz-Sommer was 110 years old when she passed away in February. Born in Prague, but living in London at the time of her death, she was believed to have been the oldest living survivor of the Holocaust. Sommer’s passing, as well as the recent deaths of several prominent survivors in Baltimore’s Jewish community, are grim reminders that these individuals won’t be around forever. When they pass on, they take their stories with them.
But it needn’t be that way, say those who work with survivors and the Jewish community at large. Against a backdrop of unprecedented rates of intermarriage and assimilation — and a Pew Research Center finding that 73 percent of Jews define their Jewish identities in terms of the Holocaust — they grapple with how the loss of survivors will ultimately impact the Jewish people’s future.
“Of course it is true that we are in a period of transition,” said Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress and founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “Survivors are dwindling.
“We are at a point where the torch and the obligation of transmitting our parents’ and grandparents’ memories is falling on the shoulders of the children and grandchildren of the survivors,” continued Rosensaft, who also serves as the senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. “We have to provide reassurance to the survivors that their legacy and the memories they have conveyed to the world over the past 70 years will be preserved, guarded and transmitted into the future.”
Part of the issue is that the collective memories of Holocaust survivors can be tools with which to keep Holocaust remembrance — and the prevention of future genocides — alive.
Rosensaft, who was born to two concentration camp survivors while the family was living in Bergen-Belsen’s deportation camp in 1948, will present the keynote address at this year’s Community Yom Hashoah program on April 27 at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. His topic is, “Has the World Learned?” His answer is, “Yes and no.”
“I teach about the evolving law of genocide at the law schools of two ivy league universities,” said Rosensaft. “There has been tremendous progress since 1945. There were numerous post-World War II trials such as the Bergen-Belsen trial and the international military tribunal at Nuremberg, and at least a good number have been of Nazi war criminals who have been brought to justice. We now have the Genocide Convention. … [But] we have to look with real apprehension at some of the political developments in Hungary and Greece, where there has been a very troubling rise in right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism. The fact that they may be targeting other groups such as the Roma shouldn’t let us off the hook. We can’t only be opposed to Nazis or neo-Nazis when they persecute Jews.”
While Rosensaft points to modern-day genocide and the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe as evidence of the continued need for Holocaust-centered discussion, some critics such as attorney Alan Dershowitz believe that the current emphasis on Holocaust studies hasn’t done much to ensure the continuation of modern American Jewry.
“American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality,” he writes in “The Vanishing American Jew.” “Our long history of victimization has prepared us to defend against those who would destroy us out of hatred; indeed, our history has forged a Jewish identity far too dependent on persecution and victimization by our enemies. But today’s most serious threats come not from those who would persecute us, but from those who would, without any malice, kill us with kindness — by assimilating us, marrying us and merging with us out of respect, admiration and even love.”
Rosensaft acknowledges that Holocaust remembrance and anti-Semitism are not reasons to be Jewish, yet that doesn’t lessen its importance to the Jewish people, he says.
“If that was the reason to stay Jewish, then the reasonable response would be, ‘If I wasn’t a Jew, I wouldn’t be persecuted so I’m not going to be Jewish,’” he explained. “There have been watershed moments in our history, such as the Holocaust or the founding of Israel or the revelation at Sinai or the destructions of the Temples. These are all important aspects of our history and shape our identities. But they don’t determine our identity.
“We remember the Holocaust and the victims of the Holocaust because we owe it to them,” he said. “After the Shoah, Jewish history was forever changed. It has become a permanent part of our history.”
Baltimore’s Second Generation
A former president of the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission, Harry Kozlovksy, is an IT digital project manager for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and partner in Foodem.com. He believes strongly that the children of survivors, the “second-generation survivors” such as himself, must do all they can to keep the memories of their parents alive. He believes the future of Judaism depends upon it.
“We have a burden, an obligation to make sure our children know, so they can instill it in future generations,” said Kozlovsky.
Growing up, the Pikesville resident wasn’t sure why his mother, Rose Kozlovsky, seemed sad. She never talked about the war. It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after his parents agreed to be videotaped for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, that Kozlovsky and his younger brother, Bernie, learned about her traumatic past.
“She was from a town called Sosnowitz in Poland. Her whole life changed when she was 10 years old and the Germans came in,” said Kozlovsky, 56. “She was pulled out of her mother’s arms crying when she was 12. … She was taken to Gross-Rosen concentration camp. She never saw her parents again.”
Even after the taping, Kozlovsky’s mother, who passed away in January at the age of 86, was resistant to talk about her wartime experiences. The youngest girl in her concentration camp, she was comforted by older teenagers who told her to be strong.
“She held demons inside her all her life,” said her son.
Kozlovsky’s father, Leon Koz-lovsky, is also a survivor. Born in Krevo, Russia, he escaped the concentration camps because of his wits, Aryan looks and a Ukrainian factory owner who protected him. At 94, though quite ill and a patient at the Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, the former owner of the successful Leon’s grocery store in Baltimore was more willing to talk to his children about the Holocaust.
“He came from a very religious family and wanted to be sure Bernie and I went to Jewish day school,” said Kozlovsky.
Because of his parents’ histories, Kozlovsky, who attended Talmudical Academy, has always felt different than most of the other children he knew. That feeling, he said, “has driven a passion in me and the way I see the world, other people, my kids.”
Like his father, Kozlovsky made sure that his own children, David, 24, and Joanna, 18, were both educated about Jud-aism. He worries that Jews who haven’t been personally touched by the Holocaust may lose sight of its importance as survivors pass on. Without that connection, he fears, rates of assimilation will continue to grow and the Jewish people will disappear.
“Maybe we connect Jews to the Holocaust by celebrating the lives of their children,” he offered. “Many of them have built themselves up from nothing. Maybe we set up a screen at the JCC, where typical Jews walk back and forth and learn about the Holocaust through the successes of the children of survivors. We have to be strategic.”