Last week the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County hosted a special ceremony to commemorate Yom haShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance. Holocaust survivors Eddie Weinstein and Annie Bleiberg participated in a ceremony with third-generation survivors, to continue the Center’s mission to pass along important lessons from history to subsequent generations so that we may all learn the warning signs of hatred and intolerance. To ensure we never forget. To encourage us to be what they call “upstanders,” not bystanders, whenever we come face to face with cruelty in any form.
While survivors and members of the media gathered on the second floor of the center, a bus filled with several children of immigrants pulled up outside. They shuffled through the entrance of the former private estate and were greeted by Sarah Cushman, assistant education director at the center. Nearby, a translator spoke in Spanish to them as they began their tour through the museum.
The children were from Brentwood School District.
I watched them move through the first part of the gallery and disappear into the middle of the museum. Over the next few hours, the children would move from gallery to gallery, learning the essential lesson the Center strives to teach: The Holocaust didn’t begin with the killing.
They saw the seeds of intolerance being planted in Germany in the anti-Semitic remarks and writings around the turn of the 20th century in Gallery One. They would witness the transition from spiteful words on a page to hateful actions during the rise of Hitler’s Reichstag in the first corridor of Gallery Two. In the next corridor, the children would be guided through Germany’s descent into madness when the mass killing began in 1941 with chilling efficiency. Whether or not children of this age were allowed to view the painful imagery in Gallery Three, which details the horrors of the concentration and death camps, I am not certain. Nor am I certain they were shown the tribute in Gallery Four to Terezin where 15,000 children were murdered. Gallery Five hopefully lifted their spirits as they would have seen the photos from the liberation and read stories about the greatest “upstanders” of the time who risked their lives for those the world turned its back on.
The first time I toured the museum in preparation for the Press cover story on the Center earlier this year, my stoicism crumpled by the fourth gallery. It was the photographs of the young girls, so much like my own daughters, that stuck my heart like a dagger. Their innocent faces, so confused and drawn with despair, were simply too much to bear.
After the tour the children were to hear from Karl Schapiro, a remarkable gentleman who spent the ninth and half of the 10th year of his life in a dirt bunker beneath a barn hiding from the Nazis. “In my town of 5,500 Jews, only 20 survived,” he whispered to me as he followed quietly behind the students. Karl believes in these children and their future in America as immigrants, saying, “It is the best country in the world. I lived under Hitler and Stalin.”
For nearly 50 years Schapiro never spoke publicly about his experiences during the Holocaust. He speaks now because he believes “this can happen all over.” He felt compelled to speak to the children of Brentwood on this day because, as he says, “I too came here as a refugee. At the end of five years I became legal. I hope to teach them about what they can achieve.”
Homeless and tempest-tossed, Schapiro was greeted by the Mother of Exiles. He entered the golden door lit by her lamp, both tired and poor, and forged a new life from the ashes of death in the best country in the world. But these children, these babies, have already come ashore, spirited across the border in huddled masses to live in Brentwood, a part of our country that for many has come to embody intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiments. On this day, while the survivors upstairs in the Center honored the 6 million Jews and hundreds of thousands of other victims who died during the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but wonder what the children of Brentwood were thinking as they passed through each gallery beneath them.
The Center teaches us that acquiring the knowledge to recognize intolerance is merely the beginning. Understanding where it leads requires empathy. Being an “upstander” takes courage. Irrespective of one’s feelings on the immigration issue, we must all work to quell the culture of intolerance that surrounds this issue. We must change our words so that we may better influence our actions; anything less and we risk ignoring the fundamental lessons of the Holocaust, thereby disgracing our survivors.