Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Courage to Confront Our Shadows

Walking through the densely wooded fields and forests near Rava-Ruska, Ukraine, where wildflowers and green shoots of grass spring up, one could be forgiven for forgetting what remains buried underground. Villagers living around that forest still regularly find evidence of the atrocities that took place some 75 years ago, when Nazis regularly marched Jews out to those fields to be executed and tossed into mass graves.

One French Roman Catholic is now working tirelessly to preserve the memories of those victims before they are lost. Father Patrick Desbois is motivated by this urgent call to action to memorialize the victims buried there in mass, unmarked graves, before no eyewitnesses remain.  He is an unlikely hero to shoulder this task, sharing neither nationality nor religion with these victims of the Holocaust. Instead, his connection to the Jews and Roma killed by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing squads, initially came through family history, as his grandfather was a French soldier held in a camp in Rava-Ruska.

In 2002, while visiting the site of his grandfather’s imprisonment, he traveled to the site of the massacre of Rava-Ruska’s Jewish population and found no memorials or markers for the Jewish victims murdered there, save the testimony from a small cluster of elderly residents. Father Desbois decided then to dedicate his life to ensuring similar stories from the Holocaust are well documented, transforming the fading memories of the past into lessons for the future.

Today, the world is in need of more heroes like him. He embodies the courage needed to face bigotry and evil, and the drive to teach tolerance and compassion. Father Desbois will share his experiences, insight and courage with the Jewish community of Southern California at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 7, at the Chai Event hosted by my organization, Heritage Retreats.  There, he will speak on three lessons he has taken away from his work, which may be applied to our current struggle against bigotry and anti-Semitism:

First, we must recognize the importance of friendship between communities. Without allies like Father Desbois, it is easy for the Jewish community to feel isolated and insecure in uncertain times.  Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise all across the country, and it is difficult to not see parallels between those events and 1930s Germany.  Instead of feeling frightened, however, I am reassured by Father Desbois’ commitment to interfaith solidarity. We should all be similarly inspired to care for those outside our community, country and faith.

Second, we must celebrate every-day acts of heroism. The acts of Father Desbois and his team. The acts of the men and women who recall these crimes against humanity in detail for Yahad In-Unum’s records and lead Father Desbois to the sites.  The acts of individuals volunteering their time and energy to worthy causes. This is why small acts of day-to-day heroism in our community deserve recognition and praise as well. We will celebrate a small fraction of these at Heritage Retreats’s Chai Event by honoring our community members and volunteers who have worked to create a better future for all of us.

Third, we all have stories to contribute to the fight against bigotry. Father Desbois works to record the memories of the last generation of witnesses to the Holocaust, and uses those testimonies to teach the Holocaust to the first generation that won’t have a relative who remembers the war. This is l’dor va’dor in motion. All of us, not just religious leaders, Holocaust survivors, and community leaders, can play a role in teaching two of our community’s most heartfelt beliefs: Never Forget and Never Again.

We all can learn from the example of Father Desbois. I hope many of you will join me when Father Desbois delivers his remarks at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles on November 7th.  While the spread of anti-Semitism today is frightening, we can respond with courage, compassion, and a little help from friends such as Father Desbois.

U.S. Navy pilot cited for heroism

A Jewish pilot was awarded one of the U.S. Navy’s highest honors for sacrificing his life to save his three crew mates.

Lt. Miroslav “Steve” Zilberman was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroism over the Arabian Sea on March 31, when he assumed manual control of an E-2C Hawkeye after it blew an engine.

He kept the plane steady and ordered his crew to eject. Zilberman, who was returning from an Afghanistan mission, was declared lost at sea three days later.

“He held the plane level for them to do so, despite nearly uncontrollable forces,” Navy Rear Adm. Philip Davidson wrote to Zilberman’s parents, emigres from Ukraine who settled in Columbus, Ohio. “His three crewmen are alive today because of his actions.”

Zilberman, who was based in Virginia Beach, Va., also is survived by his wife and two small children. He was 31.

‘Faces’ of Heroism

At 7 feet tall, the free-standing photos in the Skirball’s “Faces of Ground Zero: A Tribute to America’s Heroes” showliterally loom larger than life. Grizzled firefighter Louie Cacchioli, who dodged hellish traps before leading 50 people down 23 floors, cradles his helmet like an infant. Window washer Jan Demczur, wearing a meek expression, holds the squeegee he used to pry open an elevator and bash through a wall. Joanne Gross, her eyes bewildered, clutches her brother Tommy’s firefighter and cowboy hats. Next to her stands a photo of her other firefighter brother, Danny, who searched the rubble 24 hours a day until he found Tommy’s body.

Joe McNally, the former Life magazine photographer behind "Faces," was often grateful for the darkness in the studio. "I could shrink behind the lens so people couldn’t see I was a mess," he says.

McNally, 49, conceived "Faces" as headlines described the rescuers’ deeds as giant in stature. He thought of the huge Polaroid camera — nicknamed Moby and large as a whale — he’d once used in a studio near Ground Zero.

He promptly camped out in the studio, sleeping there for three weeks and spreading the word that survivors and rescuers were welcome any time of the day or night. Soon they began arriving in droves, wearing the clothes they’d worn on Sept. 11 and posing in front of the lens that had been taken from an old U-2 spy plane.

The pristine images, which emerged in 90 seconds, include a bone-tired paramedic and two stalwart-looking firefighters, McNally’s favorite. "These guys depict a uniquely American durability," he says. "They sum-up a theme of the show: that even after Sept. 11, we’re still here."

For his part, Uri D. Herscher, the Skirball’s president and CEO, has extended museum hours to honor the acclaimed exhibit, one of three inspired by the attacks to arrive in Los Angeles this summer. "Jewish tradition states, ‘To save one life is as if you have saved the world,’" he says. "These heroes saved many."

For information about the show and related events, call (310) 440-4500.

Righteous Rescuers Honored

Though certainly one of the most bitter memories of history, the Holocaust was also a time of true heroism and great humanity. On Sun., May 6, Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley dedicated a grove of trees to the non-Jewish heroes who risked their lives to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Lidia Furmanski of Pasadena, a rescuer from Poland, and Bert Lerno of Simi Valley, a Jewish Dane who was rescued, were guests of honor at the dedication ceremony.

"Mount Sinai’s mission is to provide solace and honor human spirit," said Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks. "The Grove of the Righteous Rescuers is an eternal testimonial to the thousands of non-Jewish rescuers whose courage and respect for their fellow men and women set a high standard for us all."

The Grove of the Righteous Rescuers is the first of its kind in this country and consists of 20 olive and almond trees. An additional 18 Jerusalem pines were donated by the Jewish National Fund, best known for planting more than 210 million trees in Israel. Through the grove winds a path among stone plaques acknowledging each of the 38 countries where citizens, at their own peril, protected Jews. In addition to a commemorative plaque, the centerpiece of the grove is a fountain of water surrounding an eternal flame. Dr. Edward Kamenir noted that the "combination of fire and water represents two extremes that can live in harmony." Kamenir worked as a volunteer to develop the new cemetery and was inspired by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, to create a memorial to the heroes of the Holocaust.

"In front of [Yad Vashem] is a grove of trees dedicated to the righteous gentiles of the world. It impressed me that they had a place," Kamenir said. "Wherever we memorialize those who were sacrificed by the Nazis there should also be a memorial for those who sacrificed themselves to save them."

Simi Valley Mayor Bill Davis spoke during the ceremony and worked with local school children to plant a few trees in the grove.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, focused on the importance of remembering our history. "One thing is more powerful than death itself — memory," Schulweis, said, adding that "memory is a subtle art. You have to know how to remember."

Schulweis, the founder of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, noted that if you leave people with only a melancholy memory, that memory could turn to cynicism. "Remember evil and do not forget goodness,"he said.