Tag Archives: Holocaust Awareness

Taking White Supremacy to Court

Nahma Nadich

A message from Deputy Director Nahma Nadich:

This week, JCRC sponsored a program with Integrity First for America (IFA), a new organization that is literally taking white supremacy to court, by bringing a lawsuit against the masterminds of the violence in Charlottesville. With this week’s news of the foiled attempt to kidnap the Governor of Michigan by violent extremists, the topic was alarmingly relevant once again. Our featured speakers were IFA Executive Director Amy Spitalnick and lead attorney on the case, Michael Bloch. Moderating the panel was Pastor Jeremy Battle of Western Ave Baptist Church, who traveled with JCRC to Israel and has become a dear friend. A third-generation preacher, Pastor Battle grew up outside of Birmingham Alabama in the post-Civil Rights era, in the aftermath of the 16th Street Church bombing.

At one point, Pastor Battle interrupted the flow of details about legal strategy and posed this question of our speakers: What is your personal connection to this moment? Where does your conviction to this work come from?

The answer was not surprising, for Jewish advocates committed to pursuing justice; both speakers were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. For Amy, whose grandparents were the only ones in their families to survive, this was deeply personal, with their stories “seared into her brain”. Michael told us with pride about his grandfather, who escaped Nazi Germany and then returned to fight for America in World War II, and about his parents, who used their law degrees to advance social justice – with his mother clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall.

This profound Jewish commitment to combating the hateful ideology of White Supremacy is one that resonates deeply for us at JCRC. The mission that guides all that we do includes the commitment to advance an “American society which is democratic, pluralistic and just”. Since our founding 76 years ago, we have understood that achieving this vision is not only about the common good – it is essential for our own Jewish community to thrive. There is no more powerful example than the threat that White Supremacy poses, both to us and to our equally vulnerable friends, who are targets of the same toxic hate.

“They hate all of us on this call”, Amy said of the 24 defendants that IFA is suing. Motivated by the “great replacement” theory, in which Jews are the puppet masters orchestrating the replacement of the white race, the mob they mobilized marched in the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us”. They surrounded a local synagogue mid shabbat prayer, forcing the members to flee out a back door, taking with them a Torah scroll that was rescued from Nazi Germany.

Observers of American – or Jewish – history know that this chilling spectacle is not a new one. But where Klansmen once felt the need to don robes and hide in the forest to engage in extremist violence, these contemporary haters are now emboldened to wage their war on democracy and justice in plain sight. Much to their delight, their rhetoric and tactics have become mainstream. Groups such as the Proud Boys called for a race war after they were name checked in a Presidential debate, and the Department of Justice is no longer prosecuting these cases; their investigation of them is down two-thirds in recent years. So, the haters continue, unabated in their efforts, masterfully leveraging social media platforms to spread their diabolical message. We have already seen the tragic results in such tragedies as the murders in Pittsburgh and Poway, Charlestown and El Paso. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security designated white supremacy as the “most persistent and lethal threat to the homeland”.

But if these frightening phenomena call to mind the darkest chapter in modern Jewish history, there are important, hope-generating distinctions. As Amy reminded us, unlike her grandparents’ experience, we now live in a society that is democratic and dedicated to the rule of law. Even when the federal government doesn’t take the requisite action to demand accountability, private citizens have options.

So, this small but mighty organization brought a civil suit, employing a creative legal strategy. Using the KKK Act of 1871, passed by Congress for victims of white supremacy to seek redress during Reconstruction, they are suing the 24 defendants for “conspiracy to commit racially motivated violence”. And their work has already reaped rewards. Throughout three years of discovery, the defendants blocked every request for information, and were then fined, had sanctions imposed, bench warrants for arrest issued, and in at least one instance, incarcerated. There has been financial, legal and operational impact on the defendants, and Richard Spencer – perhaps the best known among them – has complained that the suit has been “financially crippling.” A court date is now set for April 2021.

As I listened to these remarkable presenters (full video below) I was struck not only by their legal savvy, but also their unmitigated courage at stirring up this hornet’s nest of violence (security is the biggest line item in their budget). Not all of us are blessed with their fine legal minds or skill, and few of us would likely be willing to imperil ourselves as they have.

So what action can the rest of us take in the face of this dire threat to democracy and to the safety of our community? A few suggestions:

  1. Learn about the work of IFA. Sign up for case updates and share their video
  2. Don’t let this issue fall off your radar. Hold local, state and federal officials accountable. Sound alarm bells with social media platforms who take no action when misinformation is spread by this cabal of haters and amplify their message.
  3. Perhaps the most powerful way to prevent this toxic ideology from gaining traction is through comprehensive education about the lessons of history. A recent survey of Americans under 40 – indicating that 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust - provides a sobering reminder of just how much work has yet to be done. That’s why we at JCRC, along with ADL, the Armenian National Committee of America, and 30 other community organizations, are championing An Act Concerning Genocide Education, which would promote Holocaust and genocide education in schools across the Commonwealth. The bill has already passed the State Senate and is awaiting action in the House of Representatives. Please reach out to your State Representative and ask them to support this crucial legislation.

Finally, let us all take inspiration from these brave litigators, who even when faced with the darkest human impulses and behavior, are unwavering in their belief that hatred and violence can be vanquished in America. Let us employ every tool we have – in the courts and in our schools - to work toward an America that guarantees liberty and justice for all.

Shabbat shalom,

Nahma

JCRC Applauds MA Senate for Unanimously Passing New Law Requiring Genocide Education, Bill Moves to House of Representatives

Earlier today, the Massachusetts State Senate voted unanimously to pass a Genocide Education Bill that if passed, will provide all students in Massachusetts public schools the opportunity to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout human history, as well as the factors which led to their being committed. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston recognizes lead sponsor Senator Michael Rodrigues, Senate President Karen Spilka, Senate Education Committee Chair Jason Lewis and their Senate colleagues for their leadership in passing this bill.

As stewards of the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC honors the sacred obligation to lift up the experiences of those who survived the Holocaust in our own Greater Boston community, using their stories as a lesson to future generations about the consequences of unchecked hatred and intolerance. Together with ADL New England, the Armenian National Committee, and over 60 coalition members, JCRC advocated for this legislation, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy, which will give students in the Commonwealth the tools to identify and stand up against hateful, oppressive acts and to speak up in the face of bigotry.

“We congratulate Senate President Spilka, Senate Ways and Means Chair Rodrigues, and our partners in government for coming together to ensure that students in our state will learn invaluable lessons about the consequences of hate and bigotry, from the most painful parts of our history.” said Aaron Agulnek, Director of Government Affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council. “We cannot simply say ‘Never Again’ if we do not also commit to educating the next generation by giving them the resources they need to recognize and stand up to injustice before it takes root."

"We appreciate the leadership of Senate President Spilka, Senate Ways and Means Chair Rodrigues, and their legislative colleagues for taking a critical step toward ensuring that Massachusetts public school students receive Holocaust and genocide education prior to high school graduation,” said Robert Trestan, ADL New England Regional Director. “The need for Holocaust and genocide education in K-12 schools could not be more urgent. Massachusetts now has an opportunity to use the power of education to address hate through this essential initiative for Holocaust and genocide education in the Commonwealth.”

“75 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp, we, as a society, continue to grapple with the root causes of hatred and discrimination. With the passage of this bill today, we take a critically important step to ensuring our students are educated on the Holocaust, the grave mistakes of the past, and stand ready to root out the injustices of the future,” said Senator Michael J. Rodrigues (D-Westport), Chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “As the forces of fake news, division, and ignorance continue to march on, I applaud Senate President Spilka and my colleagues in the Senate for standing up to say that we will never forget the lessons of the past, and I thank my constituent, Dr. Ron Weisberger, and the advocates for their urgent efforts to ensure we use the power of education to address hate, broaden public awareness, and shape our collective future.”

An Act Concerning Genocide Education now moves to the House of Representatives, where a bipartisan group of over 70 members cosponsors signed on in support of the legislation.

The next generation committed to telling our story

The Hebrew month of Tammuz began earlier this week. Later this month we will usher in an intense, three-week mourning period, when I will join many other Jews around the world in fasting and engaging ritual mourning to lament the many calamities in our history, from the destruction of the first Temple through the Holocaust. Commemorating and retelling our history is a sacred obligation, shared from generation to generation. This obligation is acutely necessary today, as we continue to confront the dark elements of history and determine our role in creating positive and lasting change. Educating ourselves and understanding how history can continue to cause harm and injustice are the first crucial steps in this work.

At JCRC, we are proponents of this educational work, from our guided docent tours through the New England Holocaust Memorial, to our advocacy for Genocide Education in Massachusetts schools.

And we promote education through the JCRC Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest, giving students from across the Commonwealth, most of whom are not Jewish, the opportunity to confront the unimaginable crimes of the Holocaust and consider their role in standing up to current injustices. The contest, established by Holocaust Survivor Israel (Izzy) Arbeiter, provides students with a platform to share the lessons they have learned and express their commitment to work towards a more equitable world. We challenge our youth not only to remember, but also to reflect on the power of individuals, groups, and nations to effect change.

This year’s winning essay (chosen from among 200 submissions) is written by Livia Goldschmitt, a ninth grader from the German International School of Boston. Livia writes about her role as a German citizen to not just stand up to hatred and bigotry, but to reconcile the devastating impact of a painful legacy, a crucial lesson for all of us today:

Germans were the ones who killed and I am German. But we have to confront our history to understand it ourselves and to be able to learn from it….I am not responsible for what they did. But we do all have the responsibility to not let the lessons of our history be forgotten. Click here to read the full essay.               

Sadly, we could not gather in person this year for our annual Yom HaShoah commemoration where we honor our essay contest winners. Instead, we invite you to please join Izzy in recognizing this year’s Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest Winners in this video tribute.

I hope you will join me in congratulating these bright young writers who are standing up against injustice and hate in our world.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

CJP, JCRC Mourn Passing of Stephan Ross, NE Holocaust Memorial Founder

Steve Ross (center) with his son Mike

It is with deep sadness we write to inform you about the loss of Steve Ross (z”l) who passed away last night. Steve’s enduring strength, humanity, and commitment to conveying the lessons of his experience in the Holocaust to all who would hear him, were a gift we will cherish always. His legacy will live on through the New England Holocaust Memorial and through the lives of all he touched. May his memory be for a blessing. The funeral will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, February 26th, at 1pm at Temple Emeth in Brookline.

Rick Mann, longtime chair of the Yom HaShoah Program and the New England Holocaust Memorial Committee, wrote this moving tribute for Steve:
 
It is with profound sadness that I write to inform you of the loss of our beloved Steve Ross.

Were it not for Steve, there were would be no NE Holocaust Memorial, pure and simple. The Memorial was Steve’s dream. His indelible, permanent message not just to New England, but to the world. It was his intent to create a sacred place of remembrance for the six million souls murdered by the Nazis, including his parents, brother and five sisters. A place to stand as a beacon of light in the darkness of the horror that was the Holocaust. A place for reflection and for learning.

He pursued his dream with a limitless passion that turned skeptics into believers and converted both secular and religious community leaders into staunch advocates.

Among those advocates was then Boston Mayor Ray Flynn who, with Steve at his side, saw to it that the Memorial would reside in one of Boston’s most visible locations, along the Freedom Trail across from Boston City Hall.

It is here that hundreds if not thousands pass every day through its six gleaming towers and, whether they know it or not, bear witness to the unfathomable perseverance of one man and his dream… Steve Ross. But what else would you expect from a man who, as an eight-year-old boy was imprisoned by the Nazis, endured five years of horror in ten different concentration camps, and survived to build a life of meaning, love and caring for others in his adopted country.

The world is diminished today with the loss of Steve Ross. But Steve’s memory and his legacy live on in his wonderful son and daughter and grandchild and in the Memorial that will serve as an everlasting symbol of remembrance for generations to come.

On a personal level, I will always cherish my years of friendship with this most unique human being. A survivor who built a life from the ashes of the Shoah, coming to this country with nothing, learning a new language, becoming a professional and devoting his career to helping  at-risk youth. But most of all, I will always recall the way he would greet me with the most effusive hug, plant a kiss on my cheek and say, "You’re a beautiful, loving man." Of course, it was Steve who was the beautiful, loving man.

May his memory be a blessing.

Marc Baker, CJP President and CEO
Jeremy Burton, JCRC Executive Director 

With Governor Baker at the rededication of the NE Holocaust Memorial

With Governor Baker at the rededication of the NE Holocaust Memorial

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With Holocaust survivors Anna and Israel Arbeiter

Invoking the Holocaust in Contemporary Debates

The New England Holocaust Memorial

In the coming year, we’ll be marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Shoah. Here in Boston, we’ll also mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM). NEHM was specifically placed in the center of our city, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, because its founders wanted the memorialization of the Holocaust to be a continued source of learning and relevance for generations to come.

As we prepare to mark these milestones, I am reminded of the privilege I had, a few years ago, to spend Shabbat with the Munich Jewish community and to pray at the Ohel Jakob synagogue. Ohel Jakob re-opened in 2006 almost 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. I write “1938” and many students of the Holocaust will assume this means that the synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9th and 10th. In fact, Munich’s main synagogue was burned five months earlier, in June. This was a test of sorts, a test that the world failed. When nations remained silent, the Nazis read their silence as license to expand the persecution nationwide.  

I thought of that visit in recent weeks as debates over the appropriation of Holocaust terminology were back in the American political discourse.

Last month, Alabama adopted a law banning abortion that explicitly compared this medical procedure to the Holocaust and other genocides. And last week, the controversy over the horrific conditions under which migrant children are being held by our government veered into a Holocaust appropriation debate when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instragrammed, calling these detention centers “concentration camps.” 

So as others, seemingly increasingly, are invoking the Holocaust in contemporary political context, I have a few thoughts to share:

The Holocaust has both universal and particular legacies.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish community has felt an affirmative personal duty to work toward the global relevance of lessons derived from the Holocaust. As early as in 1951, it was an Israeli representative at the UN, Jacob Robinson, who helped draft the International Convention on Refugees. And today, that legacy informs our efforts to mobilize the Greater Boston Jewish community around our immigrant justice work and our commitment to the notion that the United States must continue to open our doors to refugees and asylum seekers.

Still and the same, every event is unique and to make direct comparisons does not serve us. We have a duty to preserve the specific nature of the Holocaust as a unique event in history. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in “To Mend The World,” examines four specific and unique distinctions about the Holocaust: 1) It was a final solution of total extermination. 2) The “crime” was the Jews’ mere existence. 3) The genocide was an end in and of itself without other political or economic purpose—an end for which resources would be diverted. 4) It was committed, by and large, by otherwise ordinary citizens.

Fackenheim notes that while other genocides and atrocities contain some of these characteristics, none, other than the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany, contains all four.

Political actors must understand that to invoke the Holocaust as an applicable metaphor to contemporary events is to co-opt something that was incomparable, and in a way that is painful for many in our community.  That many who were silent regarding Alabama are condemning Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and vice versa, is noted. The result is that a sacred Jewish vulnerability – including the profound trauma and lived experience of survivors who are still with us – is being weaponized for partisan purposes.

That’s unacceptable.

Further, to limit our outrage to “only” those things that accurately and adequately compare to the Holocaust is to fail to meet the moral necessity of calling out horrors for what they are. As Dr. Deborah Lipstadt rightly noted this week: “Conflating…two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.”

So we need to do better, as a society and especially as public leaders. Let us condemn the horrors being perpetrated in our name by our government for what they are. And let us do more to educate ourselves and our next generation about genocides, including the Holocaust. Ways to do this can include advocating for legislation like Massachusetts’ “An Act Relative to Genocide Education” (H.566 & S.327), sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, and supported by a coalition led by the ADL, JCRC, and the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Because amidst a rising tide of hatred and bigotry, and as memories of prior atrocities are fading, one lesson from my visit to Munich and the reality of the lead-up to Kristallnacht remains all too relevant: If we fail to protest the first violations of people’s rights, then those in power who seek to do harm will themselves take our silence as a license to do even worse. It is our obligation to stand against this through action and education. I hope you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

An Urgent Agenda

It has been over twenty years since the American Psychiatric Association deemed so-called conversion therapy (attempts to “repair” a person’s sexual orientation) to be harmful. Still, shockingly, 698,000 LGBTQ adults, including about 350,000 people who received treatment as adolescents, have been subjected to this traumatic practice in the U.S. alone.  Last month, after years of effort, the practice was banned for minors in New York, making it the 15th state to do so.

You may be surprised to learn that Massachusetts is not among the states that have banned this practice for minors. JCRC wants that to change.

Boston JCRC has a long and proud record of openly advocating for LGBTQ rights. Many years before I arrived here, Boston was the first Jewish community relations council in the country to fight for marriage equality. JCRC has supported legislation against conversion therapy in the past. And just a few weeks ago our Council’s Public Policy Committee unanimously affirmed that House Bill 2848, a bill to ban conversion therapy for minors in MA, should be one of JCRC’s priorities for this legislative session. I’m proud that we will be working to ensure that teenagers are no longer subjected to this sadistic practice masquerading as “treatment.”

Our advocacy on this bill, along with all our government affairs priorities this legislative season, once again reflects our commitment to defending civil rights and safeguarding long fought gains against discrimination, hatred, and bigotry. We are committed to working with our partners in government to enshrine policies that protect people across the Commonwealth—along with the lives of members of our community.

In 2017, the ADL tracked an 86% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in K-12 schools right here in Massachusetts—with many of these incidents involving Holocaust-related imagery and language. We need to act decisively to stem this disturbing tide. So, we are working with ADL to advocate for passage of An Act Concerning Genocide Education, to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in social studies classes in Massachusetts, enabling students to understand how unchecked prejudice and hatred can escalate to atrocity.

These are just two of seven bills that JCRC supports in our current Legislative Agenda, which includes a bill to protect immigrants being targeted for deportation, and others to help individuals and families overcome obstacles to opportunity and inclusion. Our legislative collaboration includes parties in the private and public sectors: philanthropists, social service agencies, our network of member organizations, and community leaders.

Each year at this time, we take the opportunity to recognize our partners on Beacon Hill who have joined with us to build a more just Commonwealth and a more vibrant democracy. JCRC’s annual Legislative Reception celebrates the importance of building powerful coalitions to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all in the Commonwealth. We lift up the work of the organized Jewish community to unite with others and act together for an urgent agenda; from civil rights to human services, economic opportunity to safety and security, supporting the vibrant MA-Israel partnership, and the protection of democratic values.

On March 5th, JCRC will honor four remarkable public servants who exercise their leadership to promote the common good. We will present awards to Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Joan Lovely, Representative Ron Mariano, and Springfield Council President Justin Hurst. These four public servants have answered the call for leadership in a time of great challenge, to address the urgent issues before us.

A well-functioning society and a responsive government would not be possible without outstanding, public servants like these four individuals, who honor their duty to the people of the Commonwealth. We look forward to coming together as a network to celebrate these four leaders and to recognize the work of JCRC and our partners. I invite you to join us.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy

The Chorus of Remembrance

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was seven years old when, in 1946, she boarded a ship to America with her two sisters. Four years earlier, in a French internment camp, they had been torn away from their parents. While they were hidden for a time in France and then smuggled into Switzerland, their parents were each sent by cattle car to the death camp at Auschwitz and gassed upon their arrival. (pictured above: Sylvia (center), with her two sisters, Switzerland, 1945)

The voyage to America was difficult. The ship was filled with desperate refugees and reeked from the rotting vegetables that were their sustenance. Like many passengers, Sylvia became sick, soiling her dress multiple times. When she and her sisters arrived in New York, they were met by their aunt and uncle, who took in the traumatized girls and helped them start a new life.

Newly enrolled in school and struggling to learn a new language, Sylvia chose a special item for “show and tell”; one that that would help her share her story. She brought in the dress she wore on the ship. She told her classmates about her journey on the smelly ship, and about the murder of her parents. Her teacher, Mrs. Lynch, immediately grabbed Sylvia’s arm, hissing, “You little liar! Be quiet and sit down!” Many years would pass before Sylvia would share her experience again.

That cruel incident took place at a time before the world had fully faced and come to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, as we would in the decades to follow. And yet, seventy years later – we find ourselves with new challenges of knowledge and memory.

A 2018 survey of United States residents showed that forty-one percent of millennials believe that only two million Jews or fewer were killed in the Holocaust. Sixty-six percent of them could not identify what Auschwitz was. In Europe, a third of those polled knew "just a little or nothing at all" about the Holocaust. These numbers are obviously deeply concerning, especially as the very youngest of the survivors who can give first hand witness to the Holocaust are advancing into their eighties.

Through programming connected to the New England Holocaust Memorial, JCRC’s Holocaust education work is centered around survivor testimony. We are committed to providing opportunities for survivors to transmit their experiences for as long as they are able. The Memorial was intentionally placed in the heart of the Boston, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, so that this memory would carry beyond the Jewish community and to all people visiting our city.

In this spirit, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day this past Sunday, we invited Sylvia to share her story (documented in her extraordinary memoir) of unimaginable loss and remarkable resilience with an audience of some fifty people at the Brookline Booksmith. And on Monday, we brought survivor Jack Trompetter to Lynn Classical High School. This was the first and perhaps only time that the 400 students assembled will hear a firsthand account from a Holocaust survivor.

JCRC also worked with our partners these past weeks to promote Holocaust remembrance with a Boston City Council commemoration and as part of the “We Remember” social media campaign organized by the World Jewish Congress. Elected officials from across the Commonwealth took part to lend their voices to the chorus of remembrance.

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The Boston City Council for International Holocaust Remembrance Day

But faced with the alarming figures about the lack of knowledge, we need to double down to ensure that the Shoah is remembered, through meaningful education of the next generation.

Senator Rodrigues

To protect the transmission of history, Holocaust education cannot be relegated to special occasions like the ones this week, but must be fully embedded into the curriculum of all our schools. That is why JCRC has joined with the ADL and others to support legislation mandating Holocaust and genocide education in Social Studies classes across Massachusetts. The bill, filed by Senator Michael Rodrigues and Representative Jeff Roy would ensure a curriculum designed to lift up the very stories and experiences shared by Sylvia, Jack, and the survivor community.

As a community, we understand our sacred obligation to honor the memory of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. We remember the warning signs ignored and the indifference of those who knew what was being done at that time; an indifference that provided the necessary cover for this horror. We hear and tell the stories of our survivors – so that we may bear witness to their experiences and carry their memories forward.  Our work of memory is entwined with our hope for the future; it informs and inspires our efforts to build a future where anti-Semitism, all bigotries, and the indifference that enables them, will someday find no quarter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Our City’s Collective Responsibility


This week: a message from JCRC's Emily Reichman, Director of Service Initiatives (R), and Shira Burns, JCRC Communications Staff.

On Monday, in an auditorium full of high school students visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust survivor Esther Starobin asked: “Is there anything specific you’re hoping to see here today?” Sherley Maximin’s hand shot up.

Sherley is this year’s first place winner of JCRC’s annual Israel Arbiter Essay Contest for high school students, and one of over 200 who submitted essays on themes related to the Holocaust. This Monday, she and three other student winners from schools across Greater Boston joined JCRC to spend the day at the museum in Washington, D.C.

In her essay, Sherley, who moved to Boston from Haiti two years ago, reflected on the life-changing encounter she had with local Holocaust survivors during a visit to the New England Holocaust Memorial last summer after it was vandalized by a student from her school. The students came together to let the Jewish community of Boston know that this student from their school did not represent them:

“That experience went beyond all the things that I could ever read in textbooks. I had such a meaningful conversation with Dr. Ornstein, a survivor. Nothing is comparable to listening to a survivor share their experience. I realized that there is much more to pay attention to. Way too often, we forget the causes of historical events like the Holocaust and I think we must commit to point to the signs when they arise. The lessons that one can learn from the history of the Holocaust are endless. This experience definitely strengthened my desire to learn more.”

Sherely (L) and a fellow Malden High School student at the NEHM.

This past week, days before Sherley’s visit to Washington, we marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. “The Night of Broken Glass” ushered in a time of unparalleled hatred and devastation that led to the loss of six million Jewish lives.

In 1938, we were isolated and alone. Today, the strength of our community is demonstrated through our relationships and our alliances, and through our neighbors’ determined refusal to remain silent in the face of hatred and bigotry.

And in Boston this Tuesday, under a heavy downpour, we gathered at the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM) to acknowledge a significant gift made to the Memorial by the Glaziers Union, part of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35. The Glaziers have been involved in the Memorial from the beginning, building and installing the original Memorial in 1995, made up of six iconic glass towers with 132 glass panels.

After the Memorial was vandalized last year, the union felt compelled to stand with the Jewish community and to uphold the integrity of this space that is sacred to so many. “It is our moral obligation to stand up and to speak up,” said Wayne Murphy, Director of Government and Public Affairs for the union. In his remarks, Murphy also noted that his union responded to last year’s vandalism by stepping in to repair the damage, offering to perform the work pro bono.

We were also joined by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has been steadfast in his commitment to the Jewish community, showing up at event after event as we find ourselves under assault. He reflected on the “acts of anti-Semitism happening all over our country,” including the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre of October 27, in which 11 Jewish worshippers were murdered.

At JCRC we don’t take those relationships and alliances, nor the lessons of the Holocaust, for granted. That is why we provide education and engagement, connected with the Memorial, in Boston’s broader civic space beyond the Jewish community.

Displayed on the wall of the United States Holocaust Museum is a quote from Elie Wiesel’s remarks at the Dedication Ceremonies for the Museum on April 22, 1993: “This museum is not an answer. It is a question.” The museum, and the Holocaust itself, is not finite, but rather a living, breathing history that informs our collective responsibility. An enduring communal memory of the Holocaust is crucial.

And what was Sherley Maximin’s answer to that question on Monday about her hopes for the day?

“I’m hoping to see aspects of the exhibit that inspire me to recommit to resilience and hope.”

We hope that we met Sherley’s hopes this week. And her hopes were met for us as well – when we saw Sherley and her high school community, and the Glaziers Union, stand up in the face of acts of hatred this past year. Their actions, and the actions of so many others, remind us of what is good in our city. They inspire us to recommit, with resilience and hope, to ensuring that future generations of Bostonians will do so for years to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Emily & Shira

“How Could it have happened? When will it stop?”

Each year on the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Jews around the world visit the graves of their parents to honor their memories. For many Holocaust survivors and their families, there are no graves to visit. Instead, JCRC and our partners host a Yizkor Service for our community’s local survivors and their families, a program that includes survivor testimony.

When I heard the below testimony from child survivor Frieda Grayzel, I knew that her story of survival needed to be heard by a much broader audience – and that her impassioned pleas for action on behalf of today’s “undesirables” were critical to promote. It is my privilege to share it, with the permission of this remarkable woman.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Greetings, dear fellow survivors, dear families and friends.

Shalom. 

My name is Frieda Grayzel, and I was born in Tomaszow, Poland in 1934.

I stand before you, a child survivor, at this very solemn Yizkor Service for the murdered 6 million of our families, friends, teachers, and unborn generations of fellow Jews whom we continue to mourn.

I come from Central Poland, from a large, close family long settled there. I was the cherished, beloved, cute little girl in a family of mostly boisterous boy cousins. My hair curled like Shirley Temple’s, my dresses lovingly made by my mother, and my elegant coats by my father, a tailor trained in Poland and Paris.

May 1939 - My fifth birthday party. Attended by aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends singing good wishes to me. Among my many gifts was a large red ball with big white dots and a carrying net, popular in Europe then, and a picture book of classical Greek and Roman mythology.

September 1, 1939 - Germany invades Poland. We flee to relatives in Warsaw. My sister Dorka is born on September 7th amidst exploding bombs. We are bombed day and night, trapped without food, running water, or electricity, spending many hours in damp, dark cellars turned into bomb shelters. Warsaw resists the Germans for 27 days.

October 1939 - We return home. New laws in quick succession quickly strip our civil and human rights, enforced by random shootings, humiliations, and brutality. 

Spring 1940 - We are forced to move into a walled ghetto in the worst part of town, many families crammed into each apartment. The ghetto population grows to 15,000 as the surrounding countryside is cleared of Jews. Hunger, cold, no electricity, no heat. Conditions worsen daily. Some lucky people get above starvation rations when they are employed in workshops making goods needed by the German Reich - tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, etc. My father becomes one of them.  

All of our valuables are confiscated, many people shot for trying to hide their jewelry, furs, money, household silver. The lies accumulate: the “Red Cross action”, the “Palestine action”, and on... working on peoples’ hopes that they can escape if only they prove that they have relatives elsewhere.  They are sent to their deaths. 

October 30 and November 2, 1942: The Aussiedlung ‘evacuation’: Aussiedlung: 95% of the ghetto told they will be sent to labor camps. A new lie calculated to minimize resistance. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends are all sent to Treblinka, the extermination camp, and murdered. The rest of us who have a close family member working in a workshop remain in the ghetto and are put to work emptying the apartments of those sent to Treblinka. In a large warehouse, we sort and clean all the possessions to be sent to Germany. My mother and I work sorting through the bed linens and bundling them. 

April 1943 – We are crammed into cattle cars, standing room only. Interminable trip, no air, no water, a cooking pot for a toilet. We arrive at Blizyn labor camp which also allows random killings and beatings for the smallest infraction. Separate camps for men and women, barracks with one board thick walls. 

November 1943 - My little sister Dorka, four years old, is ripped from my mother’s arms. My mother fights to go with her and is savagely beaten. All the children are sent to a nearby forest and shot.

December 1943 - My father and uncle are arrested, stripped of their shoes and kept in a wire enclosure on snowy, frozen ground. My mother scours the camp, manages to get a pair of wooden clogs and throws them over the wire fence to my father. She is beaten savagely with a board from a wooden fence, her ribs broken. That winter, a typhus epidemic sweeps through the camp and almost everyone comes down with raging fevers and hallucinations, no medical care. The “hospital” barrack is so full that I lie on the floor in the hallway. I survive. Soon I come down with malnutrition sores all over. 

July 1944 - We are crammed into cattle cars, an even longer journey. Blinded by light as the doors are slid loudly open, we are pushed, yells of ‘schnell, schnell, faster, faster’- to jump onto the platform many feet below the cattle car floor, surrounded by wildly barking dogs. We have arrived in Auschwitz- Birkenau. Men and women separate, we are told to strip. Many of us have our heads shaved roughly. We get through the showers, alive - water this time. We go through long lines under harsh flood lights to be tattooed with numbers - no more names. In Birkenau, camp B2B, overcrowded triple tier wooden board bunks, starvation rations. I am terrified as my mother risks her life over and over to procure us a bit of extra food. Hangings, shootings, and horrible punishments are all around us. Suicides by electric wire fences. We become used to the stench of the crematorium smoke. 

October 1944 - Our camp is herded to the FKL women’s camp in Auschwitz. We go through a selection by the infamous, white gloved Dr. Mengele. I am sent to the left, my mother refuses to go to the right- to the right go young women capable of work. She is beaten again, but then allowed to join me. As is my cousin Rena and her mother Hinda. Our little group – children and some older women, stand for hours in front of an iron and wood door - the gas chamber. As darkness falls, we are told to dress and walked to a fenced-in brick barrack, holding place for the gas chamber and ovens. We learned later that a small group of women prisoners, over a long period of time, had smuggled in tiny amounts of explosives from a munitions factory and exploded the crematorium– The Sonderkommando Revolt.

An SS woman approaches my mother the next day. She asks if my mother wants to save me and Rena.  Our mothers consult and say yes - they know what our fate will otherwise be. We are taken to the Twins barrack, enclosed by a wire fence. We were close in age. Dr. Mengele performs horrible, heartless experiments on twins. He himself was a twin. Daily some are taken away and returned – or sometimes not – in pain, with bandages, but they never talk. 

The winter of 1944 closed in, days darkened; the twins’ barracks is transferred to the “gypsy camp” after its occupants were gassed and cremated. After a while my mother found me and instructed me on what symptoms to complain of so I would be sent to a hospital barrack. Somehow they managed to get me and Rena transferred. Evacuations, the death marches, towards the West started. Rena and I were too weak to walk, so the four of us hid under the planks of an empty barrack, on the frozen ground.  When the Germans came through to look for any strays, they did not find us.  

January 27, 1945 - The Russian liberating soldiers arrived. January 27th became my second birthday, my re-birth-day.  

July 1945 - My father and uncle Nathan return from six concentration camps after hitchhiking from camp Ebensee in Austria. Rena’s eight-year-old brother Romek was killed in Auschwitz, her father shot a few days before liberation.  We were alive:  we were homeless and stateless. We ended up in Displaced Persons camps in West Germany. After four years of waiting our visas’ turn came and we arrive in the United States in 1949. Our readjustments begin again.

So – how could all this have happened?  Six million of our people and so many others tortured and murdered, one-and-a half million children murdered? 

How could it have happened? It tears my heart to remember, to talk about it – how could it have happened?

Is it when leaders and governments nurture lies and propaganda designed to denigrate and dehumanize some peoples? Is it when it calls people undesirables, as we were, when all borders were closed to us? Is it when people seeking asylum from dire conditions are called murderers and rapists? When it uses children’s separation from their parents heartlessly, as a means to control the borders? Do they not realize or care that the consequences of these actions never go away? For they never go away. 

I will never forget my four-year-old sister Dorka ripped from my mother’s arms, sent to her death in some nearby forest.  The echoes of the 1930‘s in our current situation here are too frightful...

Most of us, survivors, have built good and successful lives and families. We needed both strength and chance to survive. But we live with our experiences always, and so do the families we created. It is inevitable. 

So when will it stop? Will good people with open hearts be strong enough to stop it?  The deceptions, the lies, the heartless policies, the propaganda?  Let us hope so.

JCRC’s Statement on the Death of Elie Wiesel

We mourn the loss of renowned Holocaust survivor, accomplished author, and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel, z”l. Our community and communities across the globe have lost a champion human rights activist and a moral compass, consistently speaking out against violence, repression, and racism. As news of hate and terror comes all too often, we must remember Wiesel’s words - there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest - and we must act in his stead to make the world a more just and safe place, with a shared sense of humanity and humility. His memory will forever be a blessing.