September 20, 2019

Yom HaShoah Event Looks Back, Forward

“Since the 1950s, Holocaust survivors have taken on two simultaneous missions: shaping and preserving the memory of the Shoah on the one hand, and constructive social action on the other.”

Those were the opening remarks by Museum of Tolerance Director Liebe Geft, emcee at the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration event on April 12 at the museum, part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The event’s standing-room-only crowd included dignitaries and guests from more than 15 countries, along with speakers, students and survivors.

As attendees entered the hall before the official ceremony, images of survivors, along with their birthdates, birthplaces and Holocaust stories unfurled onscreen with the Simon Wiesenthal quote: “Hope lives when people remember.”

The quote aptly highlighted the fact that, throughout the year, Holocaust survivors speak at the Museum of Tolerance four or five times a day to share their experiences and life lessons. However, with the number of survivors dwindling, it also emphasized the importance of continuing education and commemorating the solemn anniversary.

“You are truly an inspiration to us all,” said Consulate General of the State of Israel Sam Grundwerg, himself a grandson of Holocaust survivors and the great grandson of those who perished.

“Today we fulfill our sacred obligation to remember the 6 million Jews who were murdered,” he continued. “The sacred obligation is not merely to remember the past, it’s an obligation to learn its lessons, and most importantly to apply them to the present in order to secure the future of our people.

“Let us pay tribute to the heroes that contributed substantially to the State of Israel and the rebuilding of Jewish families and communities throughout the world. And also let us be grateful and proud that the Jews are once again a sovereign nation.”

“If there is a flourishing Jewish state in 2018, it is because of the sacrifice of our survivors, who clawed their way out of despair to fight in the War of Independence in 1948.” — Rabbi Abraham Cooper

A high point of the event was the emotional reunion of Alice Weit (nee Gerstel) and Simon Gronowski, two Belgian Holocaust survivors who hadn’t seen each other in 76 years. (After Weit discovered her maiden name mentioned in Gronowski’s book, they connected online and via phone, and finally met in L.A.) Gronowski’s mother, Hannah, hid the Gerstels, and later helped Gronowski, who was 10 at the time. He was the only one in his family to survive.

Belgian Consul General Henri Vantieghem said it was important for Belgium to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, to promote equality between people and tolerance among the population. He referred to Gronowski’s story as one of love, hope and humanity. “Thank you for [showing] happiness can triumph over disaster,” he said.

Perhaps the most impassioned remarks came from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He shared anti-Semitic memes and images, and talked about the mainstreaming of Holocaust denial, last month’s brutal murder of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris, and other horrors around the world.

“The Nazis had two goals: murder all Jewish lives and eradicate Jewish life,” he said. “If there is a flourishing Jewish state in 2018, it is because of the sacrifice of our survivors, who clawed their way out of despair to fight in the War of Independence in 1948, married and brought children into the world, rebuilt Jewish life in Israel and across the globe, despite the horrors and losses they experienced.”

The program closed with the singing of Psalm 22 by Cantor Arik Wollheim of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

After the event, attendees were on hand for the reopening of Pulitzer Prize-
winning photographer Marissa Roth’s “Witness to Truth,” a permanent exhibit of portraits of survivors who serve as the museum’s docents.