Confronting the Shoah

My grandfather Morris Cohen was the youngest of 28 children.  Yes, you read that correctly.  His father, my great grandfather, was in in his 70s when my grandfather was born in a town near Vilnius, Poland.  My great grandfather was actually married twice (not at the same time), and had 14 children with each wife.  My grandfather Morris was the youngest of them all.  While my grandfather and some of his siblings were fortunate to leave Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, many did not survive or escape the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Of course, two-thirds of Eastern European Jewry was decimated, burned, and buried in what is the largest Jewish graveyard in the modern era.     

Throughout my life and career as a Jewish professional, I have always looked at this lesson in history as the ultimate result of man’s inhumanity to man.  As I have shared in the past, I was fortunate to be part of March of the Living 25 years ago.  That experience was transformational for me on multiple levels.  One lesson that I came home with was about my responsibility to ‘tell the story’ of survivors, to honor their memory, and their ultimate sacrifice.  Recently, I revisited the journal I kept during that experience.  An 18-year old young man, looking directly into the eyes of evil and horror, I am still haunted by the images seared into my mind from those seven days.  Reading my reflections today brings back vivid and painful memories.  I wrote about every moment from that encounter, including visits to multiple death and labor camps, and memorials.  In a few weeks, Ben Midler, a local Survivor, will lead 7 San Diego teens, many of whom received support from the community through Federation, as they embark upon their own March of the Living experience.

Just a month ago, I met Talia Schauder, a junior at Poway High and recipient of the 2019 Peter Chortek Leadership Award. Talia has dedicated her time to retelling the story of her grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, to her peers in schools across the country.  I was so impressed by her passion and commitment to honoring his memory and legacy.  What a blessing in our community to have the grandchildren of survivors poised to ‘tell the story’ so that the world will never forget.    

The poignancy of that message – to tell the story and never forget – will be on display at the annual Yom Hashoah Community Holocaust Commemoration which will take place Sunday, April 28, at 1:30 p.m. I am especially proud that YOUR Federation is, once again, organizing this important community event. 

The theme for this year’s program is From Reel to “Real”: Keeping Survivor Stories Alive. Keynote speaker, Heather Maio-Smith, will share real examples of the groundbreaking natural-language software used to create interactive digital storytelling. “There is great anxiety in the field of Holocaust education as to what we will do when all the survivors are gone,” says Smith. “I couldn’t imagine a world in which my grandchildren would not be able to ask a Holocaust survivor their questions. That broke my heart.”

For the first time in San Diego, the program also includes a special presentation of the Righteous Among the Nations Award in honor of the late Cornelis and Wilhelmina de Ru. Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to those who perished during the Holocaust, presents the Righteous Among the Nations Award on behalf of the State of Israel (and the Jewish people) to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Their youngest son, Herman de Ru, will be accepting the award on behalf of his parents. 

I hope you will join us on this important day. Due to the unique and extraordinary program, we are asking community members to register. 

The event will take place at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, JACOBS FAMILY CAMPUS, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla.


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