Conversations across Generations: Holocaust Survivors and Teens

May 05, 2016
By Judy David Bloomfield

My mother, a Holocaust survivor originally from Romania/Hungary, was an active member of Café Europa in Los Angeles for many years. Discovering that JFCS East Bay runs a thriving Café Europa program as well inspired me to get involved with the agency. My mom was deeply committed to Holocaust education, as am I.

In addition to getting to know our East Bay Café Europa participants, I am fortunate to be part of an active Second Generation group at Temple Beth Abraham (TBA) in Oakland. This group for adults whose parents were Holocaust survivors formed back in 2007. We are interested, among many things, in connecting teens in our community with Holocaust survivors. We know firsthand that there is nothing more powerful than hearing stories about the Holocaust directly from people who lived through that horrific time and managed to rebuild their lives afterward.

In partnership with Rita Clancy, JFCS East Bay’s Director of Adult Services, and Susan Simon, TBA’s Director of Education, our Second Generation group recently made arrangements to bring several of Café Europa’s survivors to TBA’s Bet Sefer Religious School to meet with the seventh grade students. The teens had been practicing their interviewing skills in the weeks prior to this gathering. After introductions, they dispersed in small groups into the corners of TBA’s social hall and library, and the conversations began.

Five Speakers with Kids

“What were your experiences with anti-Semitism in the United States?” asked Jonah intently, wearing a purple hoodie from Northwestern University. He was sitting around a table with four of his classmates and was interviewing Renee, who had just finished her story about fleeing with her family to the South of France.

“I didn’t really notice any,” Renee began, “because I was so focused on being married and raising my family.” The students blinked at her, somewhat perplexed. Renee added, “When I got to America, I never looked back.” Jonah jotted that down.

Across the room, Laszlo explained to his group how he was saved by Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest during the occupation. Meanwhile, Dora extended her arm to show her cluster of students her tattoo from Auschwitz. She told them some of the powerful stories recounted in detail in her book, Tell the Children: Letters to Miriam.

Upstairs in the Temple’s library, Marika from Budapest re-lived the most harrowing minutes of her life. She described crouching in a tiny cupboard while clinging to Margaret Slachta, the leader of the Grey Nuns Sisters of Social Service who saved over 1,000 Jews during the Hungarian Holocaust. (Yad Vashem recognized Slachta as Righteous Among the Nations in 1985.)

“Our parents had already been taken,” Marika explained. “We heard the boots walking closer, we did not dare breathe,” she paused to wipe a tear from her cheek. “I can still feel Slachta trembling—but we were being liberated,” she said shrugging, as though she still didn’t believe it.

“I just can’t help but think: it could have been me,” confessed twelve-year-old Talia soberly.

“It could have been any of us!” another student exclaimed.

After sharing her vivid memories of Kristallnacht and her escape from Germany to England in 1939, Liesel’s parting words to her group of students were this: “The secret word in life is kindness. Caring, whether you are a Jew or Christian or whatever, that is the way to live: to care about oneself and others.”

A few days after the event, I received an email from Marika in which she thanked me for “the opportunity to spend such meaningful time with these intelligent, open-minded young people.” She admitted, “I hardly ever talk about my experience in the Holocaust so I knew it would be a painful and upsetting experience for me. Honestly, I wasn’t looking forward to it.” I had sensed her discomfort when she arrived that day, and was relieved to hear how she felt afterward:  “Now I am grateful that it happened,” she wrote. “I had to do it for all who perished in the Shoah. These young people heard what happened to those Jews . . . who didn’t have the opportunity to live in this wonderful place called the United States of America.”

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016, I reflect on the courage of survivors to tell their incredible life stories, and the courage of young teenagers to listen and ask questions. As long as we can continue to have these conversations, we will. We must. Their stories will not be forgotten.

—Judy David Bloomfield is President of the Board of Directors of JFCS East Bay