January 16, 2019

Georg Citrom: A Life Transcending Generations

Georg and Elisabeth Citrom of the Holocaust Survivors Association, Sweden standing among the wreaths in the Hall of Remembrance.

Every generation has its own unique experiences; each new generation receives memory’s inheritance in its own way.   We live in an increasingly mobile and global world, where just two generations can span continents, wars, economic hardship and success; migration and displacement; loss and growth and change. Our identity, which is both fixed and fluid, adapts and changes rapidly as we move physically, economically and socially; our chameleon instincts enable us to survive in new and changing environments. 

Perhaps no group demonstrates the relationship between life lived and memory transferred more than the rapidly reducing number of Holocaust survivors, who every day pass the baton of memory to their families. 

Georg Citrom was born in Romania in 1931.  By the time he was just fourteen he had experienced life in the Oradea ghetto and had survived both Birkenau and Buchenwald – schooled, as some survivors say, in the hardest university of life. He could have been an angry and bitter man; after all, everyone he had grown up with, and all those he had loved, were turned to ashes during the Holocaust. But Georg chose a higher path. Dignified, hard-working and humble, he labored his way from teenage refugee to successful businessmen in his adopted Sweden. His wife Elisabeth, also a Holocaust survivor, raised their two children Evelyn and Joel in a Swedish culture devoid of Jewish influence, yet imbuing in them a keen sense of their Jewish identity.  Evelyn settled in Israel where she still lives today.  Joel settled in the United States, where, after graduating from the University of Southern California, he made a successful business career in New York. Joel’s wife Ulrika, also a daughter of a Holocaust survivor living in Sweden, raised three beautiful children with both Swedish and American citizenship, acutely aware of their deep connection to Israel and their European Jewish identity.  They are a truly global family, just two generations on from the moment the Nazis intended to eradicate their lineage entirely. 

I had several opportunities to spend time with Georg and Elisabeth Citrom, most recently in their home in Stockholm, where they married over sixty years ago. They bestowed me with affection as if I were a part of the family, and lavished homemade fare over a laden Shabbat table, as if I had not eaten for a week. I was enveloped by the warmth of their home and their deeply giving souls. As I left them and stepped into the chill night, I wondered how people who had experienced such darkness could become such shining beacons of humanity.  

This week I was with Joel, Ulrika and family enjoying the Labor Day weekend, when news came through that Georg had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away.  In the silence that ensued, I first felt that beacon flickering out, because for sure, no one can replace the man that was Georg Citrom. But then as I watched, I realized that his family are that light – they not only inherit his story, they are his story.

Should you walk into the reception of USC Shoah Foundation you will encounter a large life-sized photo of a Holocaust survivor surrounded by lights and cameras, documented while giving testimony.  The man in the photo is Georg Citrom on the day he gave testimony in 2010. Over 55,000 survivors and witnesses have given testimony to the Visual History Archive, but as chance would have it, that photo of Georg was picked out by our graphic designer to represent the experience of all of them in the lobby of the Institute.  

The day he gave testimony Georg brought together his traumatic past with his successful present and future legacy, and bequeathed it to his family, and all who are prepared to listen. The legacy that lives on in the story of his family bring together the Jewish community of Oradea; the lost souls of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; the power of survival; the strength of the refugee who thrived against the odds; the father who raised his children to be upstanding citizens of the world; the mortal whose final resting place will be in Israel the country he loved. As his family gather in Israel to say their final goodbyes, they will take on once and for all the bittersweet story of which they are an integral part.   

As Joel left for the airport to be at his mother’s side, he turned to me and said, “Please make sure you always save the photo of my father at USC Shoah Foundation.”  Alongside that photo is the statement in bold letters – “Every Survivor has a Story to Tell” – a story that transcends time, language, geography and generations.

 See the full testimony of Georg Citrom here.

Stephen D. Smith PhD is USC Shoah Foundation Andrew J. and Erna Finci-Viterbi Executive Director.

Moving and Shaking: Obama at Shoah Foundation, Righteous Among the Nations Award given

Recalling the horrors of the Holocaust, President Barack Obama urged nations to fight growing anti-Semitism and threats against Israel in his remarks on May 7 to 1,200 supporters of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation. Obama called for “confronting a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world.

“We see attacks on Jews in the streets of major Western cities, public places marred by swastikas,” he continued. “From some foreign governments we hear the worst kind of anti-Semitic scapegoating.”

At the same time, “It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of the Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama declared to loud applause.

The gala at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Shoah Foundation by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, following the international success of his Holocaust movie, “Schindler’s List.”

Spielberg presented the Ambassador for Humanity Award to Obama at the event, which raised $4 million for the foundation’s work in compiling video testimonies of 52,000 Holocaust survivors, liberators and other witnesses. The work is continuing with testimonies from the last survivors of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and of the Japanese massacre of Chinese in Nanjing in 1937. More recent testimonies are being collected from survivors of mass killings in Cambodia and Rwanda.

Stressing the importance of these testimonies collected by the Shoah Foundation, Obama said, “The purpose of memory is not simply to preserve the past, it is to protect the future. We can teach our children the hazards of tribalism. We can teach our children to speak out against the casual slur.”

Bruce Springsteen, the evening’s musical entertainment, earned a standing ovation from an audience sprinkled with Hollywood’s heaviest hitters for his renditions of “The Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” 

TV host and comedian Conan O’Brien served as the evening’s host and suggested that given the massive traffic jams caused by security for the president’s visit, perhaps he could just send his message by Skype the next time around. Praising the Shoah Foundation’s work, O’Brien deadpanned that it “was recording evidence of intolerance long before Donald Sterling’s girlfriend.”

Even with the array of eloquent speakers, they were almost upstaged by Celina Biniaz, who was the youngest person included on Schindler’s famous list.

“Oskar Schindler gave me my life,” the Camarillo resident said. “Steven Spielberg gave me my voice.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles held a Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) ceremony at Stephen S. Wise Temple on May 4 to commemorate Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was among the more than 200 attendees and spoke about the importance of Jewish unity. Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel participated as well. 

Yiddish theater actor Mike Burstyn served as master of ceremonies. Attendees included philanthropist Shoshana Milstein, who said the memorial Yizkor prayer, Rabbi Hagay Batzri, of Kahal Joseph Congregation, who said the “El Male Rachamim” prayer and singer-songwriter Gilat Rappaport, who recited “Hachol Yizkor” (“The Sand Will Remember”). The Kol Echad Choir from Milken Community Schools performed “Eli, Eli” (“My God, My God”). 

 The event included lighting a memorial candle, laying a memorial wreath and more. 

— Jordan Novack, Contributing Writer

Edward Kruto, left, accepted the Righteous Among the Nations Award on behalf of his late mother.  Israel’s Consul General in L.A. David Siegel presented the award. Photo by Bart Bortholomew/ Simon Wiesenthal Center

Hacienda Heights resident Edward Kruto accepted the Righteous Among the Nations Award on behalf of his late mother, Emilia Krutova, at an April 28 Yom HaShoah event at the Museum of Tolerance.

Krutova was a naturalized American citizen visiting her hometown in Slovakia during World War II. Because of the war, she found herself trapped in her village and decided, despite the danger, to open her home to 12 Jewish people. At the time, Kruto was a young boy, between 6 and 8 years old.

As Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel presented the award to Kruto, he emphasized that Krutova’s courage saved lives.

“Because of Emilia Krutova’s unimaginable bravery, for 12 Jewish souls, the question of annihilation or liberation was answered with freedom,” Siegel said.

The Righteous Among the Nations Award represents an effort of the Israeli Holocaust center, Yad Vashem, to recognize non-Jews who assisted Jews during the Shoah.

Among the others who participated in the event were Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, joined by Sinai Temple’s Cantor Marcus Feldman and under the musical direction of Michelle Green Willner; and Cantors Natan Baram and Arik Wollheim. Bernd Elias, Anne Frank’s closest living relative, took part as well. 

Naomi Ackerman and Daniel Lieber

Naomi Ackerman and Daniel Lieber are this year’s Jewish American Heritage Month honorees. The initiative of Union Bank and KCETLink honors local heroes in the community. “The program pays tribute to exemplary leaders who are making a difference and enriching the lives of others by improving their community, region and the world at large,” a May 1 press release by Union Bank reads.

Ackerman is founder of the Advot Project, a nonprofit that uses theater to promote social justice and activism. Lieber, a physician, is chair and founder of the Holy Land Democracy Project, which sends local teachers to Israel and has them teach a mini-course on the many faces of Israel to charter, private and religious schools when they return.

A private dinner celebration with executives and the winners’ families will take place May 22.

From left: Former L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles’  Dana Erlich and Breed Street Shul Project president Stephen J. Sass came together on April 27. Photo by Gilbert Weingourt

The Breed Street Shul Project’s annual gala, “Praise for Our Past — Raise for our Future,” honored the Fujioka family, the Breed Street Shul Project’s building committee and its pro bono partners on April 27 at the Japanese American National Museum.

Linda Fujioka, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, and son William Fujioka, chief executive officer of Los Angeles County, received the Spirit of Boyle Heights Award. The award recognizes “outstanding leadership in civic and community life. Through their contributions to society, recipients reflect the very best traditions of the Eastside: appreciation of family and heritage, celebration of cultural diversity and commitment to tikkun olam, building a better world,” according to a Breed Street Shul Project press release.

The Honorable Menschen Award went to Breed Street Shul project’s building committee and pro bono partners: Robert Chattel, Douglas Erenberg, David Gray, Rodney Freeman, David Johnson, Niles Mitchell, Jon Monkarsh, Valerie Smith, Shane Swerdlow, Erika Trevis, Steve Wallock and Mark Weinstein.

The evening auctioned off original art by Mike Saijo and featured a private viewing of museum exhibition “The Dodgers: Brotherhood of the Game.”

The nonprofit is dedicated to revitalizing the Boyle Heights-based Breed Street Shul.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.