A day of Holocaust memories

When 89-year-old Max Stodel arrived for a Feb. 17 program at the Skirball Cultural Center marking the run-up to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) 20th anniversary in April, he didn’t come alone.

In addition to his daughter, Betty Lazarus, the survivor of the Shoah who was interred in nine camps in Germany and the Netherlands brought notes he secretly wrote on cement bags while working as a foreman in a camp requesting that cigarettes, rice and beans be smuggled inside. He also arrived with displaced-person forms and prisoner papers that were drawn up upon his liberation.

It was part of a program called, “Rescuing the Evidence,” in which survivors and their families gave personal artifacts from the Holocaust to museum curators so that the items could become a part of the Washington, D.C., museum’s collection. Stodel, who had been up since 3 a.m. cleaning out his apartment of artifacts in preparation for the event, said he was “overwhelmed” by the curator’s response. 

“It made me feel good that the world will know more from a survivor,” said the member of Temple Akiba in Culver City. 

The daylong celebration and commemoration at the Skirball attracted more than 1,200 people, in addition to 225 survivors and 50 World War II veterans. It was open to the public and featured panel discussions, the screening of rare historical film footage, opportunities to conduct research about survivors and their families, and more.

Los Angeles represented the second stop of a four-city national tour undertaken by the museum as a lead-up to its anniversary. The itinerary already included a visit to Boca Raton, Fla., and upcoming stops will be in New York and Chicago. These communities were chosen because they have the largest survivor and World War II veteran populations, according to Andrew Hollinger, director of communications at USHMM. A national tribute dinner will take place April 28 in Washington.

“We wanted to thank all the communities that helped create the museum and make it such a great success in the last 20 years, and certainly Los Angeles was very prominent in that regard,” USHMM director Sara J. Bloomfield told the  Jewish Journal. 

Throughout the day at the L.A. event, attendees engaged in education and remembrance. In the Skirball courtyard, survivors and American military veterans marked where they were when World War II ended, placing pins on a blown-up map of Europe and North Africa. Nearby, families browsed the museum’s online archive for Holocaust documents that might contain evidence of what their parents and grandparents experienced during the war.

Elsewhere, panel discussions explored topics such as “Collaboration and Complicity: Who was Responsible for the Holocaust,” “From Memory to Action: Ending Genocide in the 21st Century” and “The World Memory Project,” a collaboration between the museum and Web site Ancestry.com that recruits the public to help build the world’s largest online resource for information about individual victims of Nazi persecution. 

Broadcast journalist Warren Olney, host of KCRW’s “Which Way, L.A.?” and “To the Point,” was among those who spoke during an hour-long tribute ceremony for Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans. 

“The fragility of freedom, the nature of hate, the danger of indifference, the [Holocaust] survivors endured an unimaginable horror, they were tormented by their persecutors, betrayed by their neighbors, abandoned by the world,” he said. “The [United States Holocaust Memorial] Museum’s work is to share those stories.”

The tribute ceremony kicked off in the Skirball’s Ahmanson Ballroom with a presentation of the flags of the U.S. Army divisions that have been certified as liberating divisions. Bloomfield, who was followed by Olney, then addressed a packed room concerning the importance of the museum’s mission. As every seat in the room was filled, the ceremony was simulcast on video screens all over the Skirball. 

Cantor Herschel Fox of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino led the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Zog Nit Keynmol,” or “The Partisans’ Song.” Afterward, 34 children and young adults — ages 10 to 20 — approached survivors and veterans and attached memorial pins to their clothing, while a composition by musician Leon Levitch, a survivor of an Italian concentration camp, played.

The 34 are current or former participants of Remember Us, which runs Righteous Conversations (a project that organizes teens and survivors to speak out about injustices) as well as a b’nai mitzvah project that invites young people to use the occasion of their bar and bat mitzvahs to commemorate children who were killed in the Holocaust before they could have their own bar or bat mitzvah. 

Levitch, 85, who was in attendance, told the Journal that these sorts of events make him “feel that was it was all worth it to survive, that it wasn’t for nothing.”

Late in the day, parents with children sitting on their laps informally gathered around survivor Avraham Perlmutter as he shared his story. During the war, Perlmutter said he hid, with help from Dutch families, under piles of coal, underneath a latrine and buried beneath hay in a horse stable, among other places.

Eventually, he made his way to the British military front and began working with them as an interpreter. He immigrated to Israel and, later, to the United States. As a young adult, Perlmutter studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology and at Princeton University, then started his own aeronautics company.  

“You’ve done so well,” said a woman listening. “Mazel tov.”

The event concluded with an invitation-only fundraising dinner, where  Los Angeles philanthropist Max Webb, a major donor to the museum, was among the guests.

Kapesh Patel, 37, a non-Jewish self-described history buff who took part in the commemoration at the Skirball, said it was a unique opportunity for him to be around Holocaust survivors.

“Where I hear [survivors’] stories, it’s just like, wow,” he said. “There is always something to be gained, especially from firsthand accounts of survivors.”