REMARKS AT YIZKOR MEMORIAL SERVICE – BETH AM ISRAEL
By: Joseph S. Finkelstein
At this moment, we have in our hearts and thoughts family and friends who had a significant role in our lives, and who have passed away. This act of remembrance is a sacred and holy moment.
We will shortly recite an additional prayer “In Memory of the Six Million.” Here we recall and remember the innocent Jews who were gassed, slaughtered, burned and murdered in the Holocaust.
No one can comprehend, or even imagine, the genocide of Six Million, and we cannot personalize such an enormous number. As we recall them, let us remember that each victim had an individuality of his or her own, a family, relationships, a history and a future, hopes and dreams, and a life, and each deserves to be remembered.
I have recently committed myself to the fulfill the duty of remembrance by joining and becoming active in an organization called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation (or ABMF). The ABMF’s mission is to preserve the authentic physical remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the authentic memory and history of what occurred there, and to include Jewish voices in this project.
Auschwitz was not intended by the Nazi’s to be a lasting presence. When many other extermination camps were closed, they were demolished, bulldozed, planted over and covered to conceal the evidence. After the sudden breakthrough by the Soviet Army from the east in January, 1945, the Germans quickly withdrew from Auschwitz, blowing up the crematoria and destroying much documentary evidence, but leaving behind many structures and artifacts. These include wooden barracks and towers, photographs, negatives, documents, prisoner suitcases, prosthetic devices, prayer garments, ordinary belongings the victims brought with them, such as toothbrushes, hairbrushes, combs, jewelry, pots and pans, as well as 110,000 shoes, and 90 pounds of eyeglasses. There are world class labs and world class specialists at work at Auschwitz, making sure the artifacts and structures will be preserved, and one of the ABMF’s commitments is to provide support for these preservation efforts.
The goal is not to rebuild Auschwitz, but to preserve its physical remains as they existed on the date of liberation. This will ensure that future generations will see the authentic site and its artifacts, and is a powerful and undeniable statement to those who claim the Holocaust never occurred or doubt its existence.
Why Auschwitz? Certainly, there are hundreds of other historically important former camps, mass grave sites and other significant locations where untold millions suffered unthinkable treatment under the Nazis. But Auschwitz has become the symbol, one could say it is emblematic, of the Holocaust around the world.
Perhaps, more important, is the recognition that Auschwitz is the gravesite of 1.1 million human beings, of which 1 million were Jewish children and adults. It is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world and it is our duty to protect and preserve it, if only for that reason.
For me, there is also a very personal connection. My mother, at age 13, was separated from her family, and sent to a labor camp, and never saw her family again. She learned after the war that her entire family was deported to Auschwitz in August, 1943, where they were gassed and burned within hours of arrival. My father and his family were also sent to Auschwitz, where they were selected to work in slave labor camps where their death was also certain, but planned to occur more slowly, after the Germans exploited their labor. My father, 18 years old, was tattooed on his left forearm with his Auschwitz prisoner number, B255.
I am not here at this holy moment making any solicitations, but please reach out to me after Yom Tov if you would like to discuss the ABMF and its mission. I would be delighted to speak with you.
I did want to conclude with a brief mention of three upcoming events, that I hope you will consider supporting with your attendance.
First, beginning next month, starting November 11, 2019, and for several months following, the ABMF has put on loan to the National Liberty Museum at 3rd & Chestnut, in Philadelphia, 40 pieces of Auschwitz “forbidden art”, works of art that were secretly done by Auschwitz inmates, hidden and recovered after the war. It is very powerful. Please visit, bring your family and tell your friends.
Second, in April, 2020, after Passover, we have organized and are looking for participants to join a mission to Poland and Auschwitz from Philadelphia. This will be a Jewish-themed trip, and will include a tour of Auschwitz, with a behind-the-scenes visit to the preservation labs.
Finally, Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, and on every fifth anniversary of that date there is an International Commemoration at Auschwitz. Next year is the 75th anniversary. In cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, this will be simulcast of the ceremony in Philadelphia, at the National Liberty Museum. Please save the date, January 27, 2020. A flyer is available on this in the lobby, and more details will be released in the near future.
Thirty years ago, I met privately with Elie Weisel, in a small group of 12 children of survivors. He said to us, that in a few decades, most people who would then be alive will have been born after the Holocaust. The Holocaust will be considered by many as ancient history, something they knew little about, that happened long ago, in the last century. Then he said something that I have carried with me ever since. Elie Weisel said to us, “There will come a time when I will be dead. Your parents will be dead. There will not be witnesses who will be able to tell the story. The memory of what occurred will be forgotten unless you take it upon yourselves, as your personal responsibility, to preserve it.” He was talking to me, and our small group, but also to us, to our generation. It is our collective responsibility to preserve the evidence, preserve the memory, and to teach the next generations.
As we say now the Yizkor prayer of remembrance for the Six Million, let us commit to this sacred and holy task of remembrance. May we recall them with love, and may their memory be for a blessing.