Co-hosted by the Young Friends of the Museum and Manhattan Jewish Experience, “Yom HaShoah: Stories of Survivors” Program commemorated the six million lives lost during the Holocaust. Opening remarks by Rabbi Mark Wildes and Young Friends board member Zach Boren were followed by a special candle-lighting ceremony and memorial service, and an intimate interview conducted by Miriam Leichtling with Mrs. Stephania Hecht, who witnessed the atrocities of Auschwitz and lived through the post-war Romanian communist regime.
Unique and personal, this discussion not only recounted important personal history, but also placed an emphasis on how we, the next generation, can make sure those who were lost are never forgotten.
In his opening remarks, Rabbi Mark Wildes told the story of a 16-year-old boy from Poland, Yossi, who saved the schmaltz from his daily rations for months in order to provide fuel for a candle lighting on Chanukah. When beaten by a Nazi repeatedly for this act of defiance, he shouted “You can hit me all you want but that flame is never going out.” Rabbi Wildes explained to the crowd: “Holocaust commemorations are imperative and I commend you for being here tonight, but to truly keep the memory of the six million alive, to truly keep the flame of Judaism burning strong, we must embrace the Jewish heritage that our grandparents and our great-grandparents lived and so cherished.”
The most powerful way to keep the memory of the six million alive “is by living a Jewish life; by each and every one of us being engaged in something authentically and positively Jewish,” said Rabbi Wildes, “whether it’s celebrating Shabbat, coming to MJE to take a class on Judaism, getting involved with the Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, learning how to read Hebrew or visiting Israel.”
Since it’s founding in 1998, MJE has been hosting a Yom HaShoah program with a survivor. Miriam Leichtling, former Director of Programming at MJE, is largely responsible for growing the program to what it is today.
Rabbi Wildes explained, “When Miriam came on board, she brilliantly changed the format so that we could listen in on a conversation between her and the survivor. Besides making it easier and more comfortable for the survivor to tell his/her story and therefore allowing for less experienced speakers to participate, this format was an even more successful way of engaging Jewish 20s and 30s and making them feel part of the conversation.”
The success of the new format was reflected in a steadily growing number of participants each year. The participants weren’t the only ones responding to this powerful programmatic shift. In 2015, The Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage partnered with MJE to host the event, which was sold out to over 300 participants. This year, the highly esteemed national museum invited MJE to co-run the program as an official part of its roster and hosted the event at the museum itself. The honor was felt by all involved.
Miriam Leichtling, a board member of Young Friends of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and one of the directors of the “Stories of Survivors” program, speaks for all partnering organizations when she explains why this program is so important to her. “When you listen to a survivor’s story, you are taking on precious cargo—the memories of the loved ones they have lost. You become a steward for the next generation. I can’t change things that happened in the past, but I can help survivors find their voice, if they choose. I can help make sure memories do not die. I can help young people be inspired and stay connected to Jewish life...which is everything the Nazis were trying to destroy.”
When asked what advice she had for the audience, Mrs. Hecht answered “They should think ahead. Life can be very cruel. Try to be happy and don’t stay alone. I wish them happiness. And have much nachas —make lots of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” The audience, mostly single young professionals, appreciated the sentiment.
The “Stories of Survivors” is now one of the largest gatherings for young Jewish professionals in NYC and sold out this year to over 400 young professionals. Survivors from past years’ interviews were in attendance as well as friends and family (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) of Mrs. Hecht.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage is located at 36 Battery Place, New York, NY.