At a time when the world is quiet, people are scared and confused, and personal lives have become isolated, remembering those who have perished in the Holocaust and those who survived and the strength they conjured to get by each minute takes on an even greater meaning. As time distances us from the Shoah, our connection to living survivors also becomes distant. On Tuesday, April 21, the Yeshiva of Central Queens presented two Yom HaShoah programs on Zoom to remind us of the importance it is to be Jews, to fight and stand up for what we know is right, and to take accountability for our obligation and our responsibility to really listen to their stories, to learn from those stories, to remember them, and to pass the stories of living testimony on to our children.
Under the organization of Rabbi Shmuel Soffer, 4th grade rebbe, grades 3-5 students joined together for t’hilim for all who perished and to watch Daniel’s Story, a poignant video memory of a young boy who lost most of his family, yet survived to share his experiences. The students were silent and still, connecting to a child their own age, who lived through and survived the worst tragedy; the video touched the lives of the students personally.
Following the video presentation, several students told stories passed down by a grandparent or great-grandparent. Emmy Birnbaum, grade 3, told a story about her great-grandfather and how his attempt to keep Pesach in the camps by not eating the food and saving it until he really needed it to survive was their Pesach miracle. Gabby Chubak, grade 4, spoke of her close relationship with her great-grandmother who survived with her sisters through Auschwitz and the Death March to immigrate to America and start her family right here in Hillcrest. Binyamin Flamenbaum, grade 5, shared the beautiful story of a miracle of his great-grandmother with an infant being passed over by the Nazis and left in the ghetto was able to survive, later marrying his grandmother, another infant born in the same town in Hungary, who also survived and together began a family and generations of Torah-observant Jews on a promise to a father murdered in the war whom he never got to meet. Siblings Eliana and Kobi Gomberg spoke of their great-grandmother in Poland as a young child and how she snuck in and out of the ghetto, risking her life at every moment, in order to survive so generations could be born.
The program ended with Leora Traeger, grade 3, telling the incredible story of her great-great aunt Lilly, and her survival, rebuilding, and “the famous wedding dress.” After losing her father and brothers and surviving the war with her sisters, Lilly was placed in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp where she was engaged to be married. She had told her future chasan, Ludwig Friedman, that she always dreamed of wearing a big white gown. With the strength from surviving the Shoah, he stepped up to the challenge. He traded cigarettes and beans, both huge commodities when food was limited and most had no more than the clothes on their backs, with a pilot for his parachute. A seamstress in the DP camp worked for two weeks to turn an old, worthless parachute into a symbol of normalcy and a myriad of miracles, stories, and the rebuilding of lives for generations. After losing everything, 400 people walked 15 miles to attend Lilly and Ludwig’s wedding in their synagogue, her sister Ilona Traeger, great-grandmother of YCQ students Leora, Noam, and Eyal Traeger, wore the cherished wedding dress to her wedding and so continued the tradition for over 17 brides, bringing hope to the survivors attending the wedding and all of their future generations. The dress that brought so much hope to so many has a home in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
The day of remembrance continued with JHS students, along with parents and staff gathered by their screens, to participate in a very emotional Yom HaShoah virtual PowerPoint presentation. The program began with Principal Rabbi Mark Landsman speaking about the importance of our role, being the last generation to have the privilege and honor hearing first-hand accounts of survivors’ experiences.
Each year, YCQ students participate in the Names, Not Numbers© program, where students learn first-hand about the Holocaust through the production of their own oral history documentary. During the YCQ program, the virtual gathering of almost 300 participants viewed the interviews from last year. They listened to participant Eva Bokhour, grade 8, speak about what she learned from her experience interviewing her survivor and the importance of passing on their stories and seeing them as real heroes. This was followed by Rafi Farber, who not only was a participant in the program, but had the privilege of interviewing his own grandfather: “Though I already know his story, it was important to interview him officially; that way, his story can never be forgotten. This way, in a time of hardship, when people need strength, they can look to these people who had the strength to carry through the whole Holocaust and from them they could get strength for themselves, and that way we will never forget.” The YCQ Yom HaShoah program ended with a solemn recitation of T’hilim to remind us that we are here, we are part of klal Yisrael, and we are strong because they fought and survived and created a legacy – and we will be their witnesses by passing on their tragedies and triumphs for generations to come.