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Sunday, December 08, 2019

(photo at right by Dani Hagler)

It’s impossible to empathize with the tragic fate of six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Rabbi Yosef Adler, Rosh Yeshiva told the students, parents, and faculty at TABC’s Yom Hashoah program, but when we hear the stories of individual families, we can focus on their lives and allow ourselves to feel the horror of what they endured.

Yehuda Feman introduced six students who lit candles in memory of family members who perished in the holocaust or in honor of those who survived, and told their stories. Mickael Benichou lit the first candle in memory of his great-grandparents who left Poland in 1929 and immigrated to Belgium. His great-grandfather went to America in 1939, and the plan was for him to send money back to his family until they could join him. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. The desperate mother hid the girls in a convent and her son in a parish. All five were subsequently hidden by different families who were honored by Yad Vashem as righteous gentiles. All the siblings survived—but their mother did not.

Jeannine Poler Fejman, Mickael’s grandmother, read a poem she composed. An agile, sophisticated woman walked to the podium. But when she read the poem about consoling her little sister who cried, “Where is my mother…where are you,” she was the young girl whose mother was ripped out of her life.

And, now forty years later,

We still grieve for you, mother.

And, for all the Mothers that Hitler murdered!

Yes, mother, I still shed many tears.

Moshe Pahmer’s great-grandfather, Dr. Isaac Bacon, earned his PhD in 1939, despite the German law that forbid Jews in university, and escaped to America where he became the Dean of Yeshiva College from 1959 to 1977. Yitzi Rothchild’s grandfather escaped to Kobe, Japan where he was placed in a ghetto, and then made it to Seattle.

Raphael Kreitman’s grandfather, Henry Schanzer, along with his twin brother Dr. Bernard Schanzer, gave the keynote address, relaying a tale of “terror and sorrow” about the holocaust in France. They were hidden by a succession of families, ultimately cared for by a loving woman they refer to as “La Meme,” whose daughter hid their mother and sister. After liberation, they were reunited and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Adelphine Dorel, “La Meme,” and her daughter, Jeanne Bonhomme, were recognized by Yad Vashem. The brothers noted that France did not acknowledge its complicity in sending Jews to Drancy, a holding pen for French Jews before being shipped to extermination camps, until 1995.

Ben Book composed and read a poem, “We Weren’t Born This Way,” about ending hate, in a multimedia presentation produced by Chanan Klapper. The boys created the video for a contest and when the TABC administration saw it, they asked the boys to show it at the Yom HaShoah program. In his introduction to the video, Klapper said he hoped this production would help preserve memories of the Shoah.

Students learning Yiddish in a Holocaust-study class sang in a choir, accompanied by violinist David Berger. In a song that could be an anthem for all day-school students, the boys sang in Yiddish,

Learn, children, don’t be afraid.

Every beginning is hard.

Lucky is the one who has learned Torah.

What more does a person need?

The answer to that question may be that learning Torah is enhanced in the arms of a loving family. The students who lit candles said their grandparents always told them how happy they were to be enveloped in the warmth of new generations. Jordan Langer, who lit a candle with his cousin, TABC Executive Director, Teri Normand, said his grandfather, who had escaped to Canada, loved to sing, especially Ani Maamin. Last year, at his 90th birthday party, Langer’s 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren sang with him. “He had tears in his eyes of sadness for those who were lost but also for the joy of his family,” Jordan said. One student caught up with me as I was leaving, to emphasize that his grandmother was happiest and proudest at family gatherings.

After the program, the students all left the building en masse to go to a movie. No, they weren’t trying to escape. Nancy Edelman, TABC Curriculum Coordinator, and teacher of English and Art Appreciation, had arranged for the students to go to a special showing of the recently released film Woman in Gold, at the AMC theatre in Paramus. The Woman in Gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, an affluent Jewish woman whose portrait was painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907. Bloch-Bauer’s husband fled from the Nazis in Austria, and designated his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altman, as the inheritors of his property.

In 2000 Altman embarked on a legal campaign to get the painting back from the government of Austria. She was represented by attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, whose grandmother was her best friend. Schoenberg is a close friend of the Edelmans. Mrs. Edeleman said she has followed the case from the beginning and suggested to Rabbi Adler that he see the film. He did—and thought all the students should see it, too.

When the students returned to the building, they participated in a Skype Q&A session with Schoenberg and asked about the film’s accuracy, his legal strategy, and what it was like to see his life acted out by movie stars. Schoenberg said most of the film is very accurate, though Maria Altman was more charming and witty than she appeared in Helen Mirren’s portrayal. Schoenberg said there is a scene in the movie where his character withheld information from his wife—something he is smart enough not to do in real life, he quipped. He said he put his heart and soul into the case, as he felt that representing Maria was like representing his family.

It was a long day filled with sadness, remembering people murdered for being Jewish, and hearing about the shattered lives and life-long pain of survivors. But there was optimism too, generated by the presence of so many young men, carrying memories forward, and filling the Beis Medrash with the sounds of Torah, the ultimate revenge on the Nazis.

By Bracha Schwartz