July 19, 2019

Teens and Holocaust Survivors Gather at Sinai Temple

Holocaust survivor Eva Perlman and Sinai Temple teen John Levy. Photo by Michelle Neman/Click Click Photography

Thirteen-year-old Leah Khorsandi is no stranger to Holocaust survivors, having met several at an annual gathering when she was a student at Sinai Temple’s religious school. However, she told the Journal that meeting survivors at a brunch held by the synagogue earlier this month was extra special. 

“Now I have a one-on-one experience,” she said following the get-together designed specifically for survivors to meet teens. “I could ask questions and have a real conversation.”

Around 70 survivors and Sinai Temple teens attended the Dec. 2 event, which was created 10 years ago by religious school director Danielle Kassin. 

“To have so many survivors in a room, to have a chance to hear not one story but 10 stories, that to me is an optimal experience,” Kassin told the Journal. “This is our history. This is our people. This is where we come from. These are our heroes. And this is who we honor.”

Joseph Alexander, 96, said he has been coming to the event since its inception. Many of the teens knew him from previous years and greeted him enthusiastically. The Polish native lost his parents and five siblings in the Holocaust. He survived 12 concentration camps and said “nothing is off limits” when it comes to questions about his life.

“This is our people. This is where we come from. These are our heroes. And this is who we honor.” — Danielle Kassin 

“It is more important today to talk about this when there’s not too many survivors left,” he said. “When we’re gone, there won’t be any witnesses.” 

Indeed, every year when Kassin and Sinai Temple Millennial Director Matt Baram reach out to the survivors on their list (which took hundreds of hours to compile), they learn that several have died.

“It’s really sad because every year there’s less and less,” said Maya Laaly, 14, who, together with Khorsandi, spent most of the morning at a table with sisters Frances and Fraania Legasz. Frances is 93 and Fraania is 90. 

Some survivors brought photographs and documents to share, including their passports and pictures of themselves as babies or toddlers with relatives they had lost. The teens and survivors could take pictures together in a photo booth. Some survivors also took photos together. Many have become friends over the years, having met at past events or as volunteers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust or the Museum of Tolerance.

David Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s Max Webb Senior Rabbi, addressed the attendees and said, “Each year, this is one of the most beautiful and wonderful events we have. I hope that you will tell the teens your stories so that we can carry them on throughout the generations. Enable us all to remember both the tragedies and survival of our people.”

The teens did receive some guidance in advance of the event from their teachers on how to interact with the survivors. The main message was: Be human with them. Get to know them a little. 

Among the stories the students heard was that of 77-year-old Carol Roth. She shared that when the Gestapo came to her village in Belgium, she was hurried through a trap door in her dining room and hidden in the cellar. Raised Catholic from the ages of 2 to 12 by a family she credits with saving her life, Roth did not learn she was Jewish until she was nearly 13 and on a boat to the United States with an aunt. “There was the Statue of Liberty,” Roth recalled. “I started crying. I didn’t know why I was crying.”

Nathan Farzadmehr, 13, said the experience of being among so many survivors and hearing some of their stories was emotional. “It makes you feel sad,” he said. But, he added, “I think they feel like people appreciate them. It’s an amazing experience because later on you’re not going to be able to do this. We can pass down their stories.”