In March 2014, when I was just 11 years old, my younger brother and I attended an event sponsored by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest New Jersey that was designed to teach children about the Warsaw Ghetto. We started off the day building walls with LEGO blocks, and I did not fully understand what the event was about until Nessa Ben Asher, a Holocaust survivor, began to speak. We were not building our dream houses, but rather, we were constructing the Warsaw Ghetto.
This year is the 75th commemoration of the Auschwitz liberation. While I was not in Israel or Poland for the memorial events held in late January, I did have the opportunity to attend the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony along with my grandmother and younger brother.
That morning, my father drove my brother and me from the Upper West Side of New York City to the JCC in West Orange, New Jersey. Although I initially was frustrated to be driving west in order to return east back into New York City, I realized that I was doing so in order to be part of the community from the Holocaust Council. We were all directed onto two buses and a van and, when we arrived at the United Nations headquarters, I felt empowered. There were so many people there for the event who also understood the gravity of that day and the need to remember the past.
As I walked into the General Assembly Hall, I was surrounded by hundreds of other people. My brother and I walked around for 25 minutes in order to grab the best three seats we could, and ultimately, I ended up sitting in the very front with my grandmother.
When the Second World War veterans, liberators and the Holocaust survivors stood, I was shocked to see how few were in the room. While I understood that there are fewer witnesses alive with each year, I felt terrified. The room was silent when the candles were lit.
The ceremony continued with Rabbi Schneier, who led us in the Mourner’s Kaddish, followed by addresses from the Secretary-General of the U.N. and the Permanent Representatives of Germany, Israel, Russia and the United States. The violinist, Itzhak Perlman, played.
The “terrified” feeling I had then has not gone away. When survivors die, their stories may also disappear because the next generation may not believe the events that they did not witness firsthand. While books and documentaries can convey stories and messages, when you talk with a survivor, that’s the real story.
I am grateful to have been able to meet some of the Holocaust survivors. While I have mentioned meeting Nessa in 2014, I also met Fred Heyman, who is one of my grandmother’s friends, and others on the Holocaust Council.
One way in which the Holocaust Council has “multiplied” witnesses is through its Twinning program. Pre-B’nai Mitzvah children choose to “twin” with a survivor. They spend many sessions together, as they learn of the survivor’s experiences during the Holocaust, and then they share that story during their Bar/Bat Mitzvah service and beyond. Fred Heyman has had 61 twins so far. As the number of survivors has dwindled, the Holocaust Council is cultivating the second generation to learn and share their parents’ stories in order to counteract future deniers.
I am very fortunate to have had a Holocaust education with many resources in the New York City area. While I have been able to meet survivors, I have also been able to learn more through books, museum exhibits and visiting different countries. The memory of the Holocaust should instruct us that, when confronted with inhumane actions, we must stand up for what we think is right. We cannot look away when we see wrong being done in the world and we must continue to advocate for ourselves and others.
Ilana Drake is a junior at the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering in Manhattan.