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.”
Harry Kozlovsky holds a photo of his father, Leon, a Holocaust survivor who made sure his children attended a Jewish day school.
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.”
Like Kozlovsky, Jeannie Gruzin Siegel of Owings Mills feels that she lives in two worlds. Born in Fahrenwald, a displaced persons camp outside of Munich, to Adela and Israel Gruzin in 1954, she considers herself both a first-generation and second-generation survivor.
“I am saturated in that culture,” said Siegel. “From the day I was born, I was hearing stories of genocide and gruesome acts of persecution. My parents suffered the most unimaginable torture and brutality during the Holo-caust. My father was in the Dachau concentration camp and my mother [was] in hiding from Uzbekistan to Siberia. They were both children but somehow managed to survive with other members of their family, including their siblings and parents.”
Sometimes, Siegel has difficulty determining whether the night terrors she suffered as a child were based on her own memories or on the stories her parents told. Yet despite all that, Siegel, who has a Ph.D. in spiritual counseling, says she had a happy childhood.
“My parents were young and in love and eager to assimilate, and we had a lot of family here,” explained Siegel. “The contrast of the stories and my full, rich life with family didn’t make sense to me as a child.”
Siegel is active in a variety of Jewish organizations and volunteers on the Baltimore Jewish Council’s Holocaust Remembrance Commission. She sees her generation as being responsible for preserving the legacy of the Holocaust survivors. But she finds it too painful to share details of her parents’ stories.
“I have spent many years working on projects to educate children, Jews and Christians alike,” said Siegel. “It is especially painful to witness the atrocities that continue in our time and in our society. I believe the retelling is important to my parents, but what I have to do is to act as a bridge to the future.”
Michael Matsas, pictured with his family in the photo that daughter Alice Garten is holding, wrote a book on his Holocaust experience, “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews in the Second World War.”
Alice Garten, 46, an English teacher from Pikesville, also grew up hearing war stories. Her father, Michael Matsas, a Greek Jew born in the city of Ioannina, was 13 when the war started in Greece. His immediate family, who by then had moved to Agrinion, managed to survive the war by traveling to the partisan-controlled mountains.
The family pretended to be Catholic even though everyone knew they were Jews. Although Garten’s father, his sister and parents survived, 117 of her father’s relatives were killed.
“My family always talked about the war and my father always talked about the anti-Semitism in Greece,” said Garten, who was raised in the Reform tradition. “My father was passionate about Israel and the Jewish traditions, but after the war, he didn’t believe in God.”
Garten believes her father’s Holocaust experiences helped shape her as a person.
“There was a message of resistance or self-determination,” she said. “Don’t be a victim and don’t be passive.”
Garten’s father, a dentist, did his best to make sure his legacy wasn’t forgotten by writing a book, “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War,” published in 1997.
In her role as co-chair of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission, Garten wants to “make sure we have new generations to learn the [survivor’s] stories and teach them to other children. I think this goes beyond the Jews,” she said. “We need to remember the Holocaust so that we remember to stand up to injustice throughout the world.”
Telling the Stories
As director of Holocaust programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jeanette F. Parmigiani has made it her business to ensure that the stories of survivors are told to future generations. A Catholic, Parmigiani first learned about the anti-Semitism that existed within the church as a college student.
“I read all kinds of things that made me livid,” she said. “My precious church had done all this? It wasn’t something we heard or learned about. I was physically ill.”
Since then, Parmigiani has worked first as a volunteer and later as a professional to build understanding between young Catholics and Holocaust survivors. As the years have passed, and some survivors have died, Parmigiani has turned to the children of survivors.
One program of which Parmigiani is especially proud of is “Lessons of the Shoah,” cosponsored by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. In addition to raising awareness about the Holocaust, the program teaches students about the need to intervene in and prevent current and future genocides. It brings Holocaust survivors to two area schools, Perry Hall Elementary School and John Carroll High School, a Catholic school in Bel Air. Students have the opportunity to hear talks by academics and clergy and survivor testimonials, while also getting to know the survivors and the children of survivors as individuals.
“It’s remarkable,” Parmigiani said of the dwindling ranks of survivors, many of whom are more than 90 years old. “People [who are asked to tell their stories] rarely say no. They stand up there to talk about the worst things imaginable, and they leave the students with the stories and a message. It’s an inspiration.”
In addition to “Lessons of the Shoah,” BJC and the JMM also cosponsor an annual program that trains teachers to teach about the Holocaust. This year the training will take place in July.
Deborah Cardin, the JMM’s assistant director and one of the organizers of the teacher training program, said this summer’s focus will be on keeping memories alive.
“It is important to be thinking about how we can ensure the continuing impact of survivor testimony as a powerful tool for teaching students the lessons of the Holocaust,” said Cardin. “There are a lot of wonderful resources for doing that, and once we started brainstorming, things coalesced around the topic.”
Anita Kassof, deputy director at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, echoed Cardin’s point.
“One of the most moving events in the museum’s calendar is our annual ‘Generation to Generation’ dinner. Every year, the museum’s director asks the survivors in the room to stand,” said Kassof. “Unfortunately, every year their number shrinks. But the presence in the room of their children and grandchildren assures us that their stories won’t be forgotten.”
At Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Rabbi Paul Schneider has developed a program that honors survivors while making the Holocaust real for students.
“We trained seven high school students to interview survivors,” he said.
Hallie Miller, a senior at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a graduate of the Krieger Schechter Day School, is one of the students involved in the program, which will culminate in a special event on April 22. Miller said she was paired with six survivors, four first-generation and two second-generation ones. One man she interviewed was Larry Amsterdam, who recently lost his father.
“One thing he said was that he has taken it upon himself to become more observant because that was what his father did,” said Miller, who then quoted Amsterdam: “People have lived and died for the Jewish religion. It is my obligation to keep it going.”
Miller also interviewed two sisters, Jeanette Carasso Katzen and Eileen Carasso Metzger. “They had so much information and had done so much work compiling it. Even though they probably told the story so many times, they were still very emotional,” said Miller. “It was reassuring to me to know that they will keep on talking about this. My generation is probably the last to have direct contact with the survivors. It’s up to their children to keep it alive, and they are doing a really great job.”
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