December 11, 2019

Keeping the Flame Alive

Dr. Gary Schiller, chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, believes that the future of intelligent, dignified Holocaust scholarship lies not in the hands of the Jewish community, but beyond it.

“Young people give me hope,” said Schiller, associate professor of medicine at UCLA. “Young people, mostly gentile, have an evolving interest in the Holocaust that is not commercial, that is pure.”

Schiller may be onto something. For two years, the Jay Shalmoni Memorial Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest has paired students, many of them non-Jews, with Holocaust survivors, then encouraged the kids to create freestyle art projects based on their encounters. It is one component of the annual Yom HaShoah programming sponsored by various community entities, including the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the museum’s parent organization, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Last year, the inaugural Shalmoni contest connected more than 1,000 public and private school students with Holocaust survivors and attracted 200 entries. This year’s competition yielded a wider variety of submissions, including screenplays, scratchboards, digital art and Web sites. There are no confinements regarding media employed, but there is a major prerequisite: participating students must meet with a survivor.

Ashley Hanna, a 14-year-old Palm Desert student, created a sculpture of a crouching skeletal figure surrounded by anti-Semitic slogans. Her foot-and-a-half-tall plaster submission was inspired by Holocaust survivor Earl Greis’ visit to her school, Palm Valley High.

“He told us his story, and it was very moving,” recalled Hanna, raised by a Catholic mother and Episcopalian father. “He spoke of his struggle and how traumatizing it was. His story was definitely personal, and it made a difference being able to actually interview him, rather than seeing it on video.”

Hanna, who at press time had yet to be notified that she had won first place in both the sculpture category and the overall contest, said she “learned a lot from Earl Greis about the struggle of the Holocaust, and I found a parallel in things that are happening in Bosnia. I know that I won’t get to study about the Holocaust until two years from now, so I got an extra opportunity.”

Christa Garcia, 15, created “Through Edith’s Eyes,” a multimedia diptych combining photography and sculpture, after she and her Notre Dame Academy schoolmates met with survivor Edith Frankie.

“It was an unbelievable thing,” Garcia said. “We really got into it. Since she was our age during the Holocaust, we could really identify.”

Garcia spent a week perfecting her project and appreciated the fact that “we didn’t have to write big ugly reports.”

Schiller and Marcia Reines Josephy, the Museum of the Holocaust’s director, have spent the last few weeks preparing for this month’s multifaceted Yom HaShoah programming, which includes children’s performances and readings on April 19; an April 22 community-wide gathering featuring keynote speaker Peter Z. Malkin, the man who captured Adolf Eichmann (survivor Fred Diament is a chair for this event); and an April 29 Yom HaShoah performance by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony that includes a salute to several survivors. Selections from the score of “Into the Arms of Strangers” will be played in honor of the children of the Kindertransport, and 16-year-old Arthur Abadiand will perform the premiere of survivor Wladislaw Szpilman’s “Piano Concertina.”

Jona Goldrich, chairman of the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument and creator of Pan Pacific Park’s Holocaust monument, is financing and overseeing the entire Yom HaShoah endeavor.

The Shalmoni contest, created and operated by Roz Rothstein — stepdaughter of late Auschwitz survivor Jay Shalmoni — is based on an idea by her husband, Jerry Rothstein. Rothstein conceived the idea following Shalmoni’s sudden 1998 death. According to Rothstein, Shalmoni would have loved the spirit of the contest dedicated in his memory.

Born in 1928 in Ungvar, Czechoslovakia, Shalmoni served as a freedom fighter for the nascent State of Israel and was involved with the effort to smuggle Jews out of Europe. Shalmoni himself was aboard a refugee ship en route to Palestine that was intercepted by British authorities. He jumped overboard and swam ashore to Israel. Shalmoni spent the last portion of his life living in Los Angeles.

“He was a very humble person,” Rothstein told The Journal. “You couldn’t get him to talk about all this, but it was a part of who he was.”

At press time, Hanna and Garcia were both scheduled to appear, along with other Shalmoni participants, at an April 18 Beth Jacob Congregation Yom HaShoah event, where the contest was scheduled to culminate with the announcement of the year-long competition’s winners. Hanna, who hopes that Greis will see her final piece, would like to see the contest continue.

“It really makes an impression when you hear them in person. As many people as possible should hear the survivors speak, because there aren’t a lot of them left,” Hanna said.

In addition to the museum and the Shalmoni-Rothstein family, the Shalmoni contest is also sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Descendants of the Shoah, and the “1939” Club. Submissions will be on display at the Museum of the Holocaust in May.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” Schiller said of the contest, which doesn’t merely rely on memorizing dry historical data. “It personalizes the Holocaust experience. The students develop an attachment to the survivor, which informs their study and behavior. Those kids will be changed forever.”

The Fourth Annual Citywide Youth Yom HaShoah Commemoration, directed by Nili Kosmal and coordinated by L.A. Museum of the Holocaust and Emanuel Day School, happens at 11 a.m. on April 19 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

“Crimes Against Humanity,” a citywide event sponsored by the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, The Jewish Federation, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Second Generation and Child Survivor Groups, begins at 1:45 p.m. on April 22 at Sinai Temple.

For more information on the Yom HaShoah programming, call (310) 821-9919 or (310) 280-5010. For more information on the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, call (323) 761-8170. For more information on the Jay Shalmoni Memorial Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest, go to www.remembertoteach.com.