It was May 7, 1945, when the Germans signed the surrender agreement that ended World War II, and what we now know as the Holocaust. Six million Jews were killed – virtually all of the Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe were not only wiped out, but their cultures decimated and their survivors scattered throughout the world. Of those who survived, their job was not only remembering, but rebuilding the Jewish people and the cultures in which they lived and practiced their religion. Since the war ended, Jews have made a point of remembering the Holocaust. For both, the human need to mourn, and the religious need to remember what the enemies of the Jews had done (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), the Jewish community has always remembered. For the generations that followed the war, it was stories of the survivors, told by the men and women themselves, that were often the strongest educational means for conveying to children just what had occurred and by whom.
Books like The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, who perished, and historical accounts told by survivor Elie Wiesel, were among the most vivid testimonies that captured the soul wrenching period. Jewish advocates pushed through sweeping legislation in western countries that encouraged Holocaust remembrance.
The sad truth about Jewish history is that there have always been incredibly powerful forces against the Jewish people. The further we get from the event, the easier it may get to deny the Holocaust, to make the world forget.
I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors. My family lost 70 family members or more in the Holocaust. My mother, Penny Waga, was born in a DP camp outside of Legnicia, Poland, and my grandparents, Morris and Rose Waga, survived the Holocaust. Yet, we lost so many, and their stories are lost with them. The Nazis tattooed Jews’ arms with numbers and killed millions of our people only two generations ago.
Those involved with Holocaust education must be praised, for they are ensuring that the lessons and history of the Holocaust live on. An organization called Project Witness has taken the lead on creating a curriculum for many schools on important educational initiatives around the Holocaust. Led by journalist, author, and daughter of survivors – Ruth Lichtenstein – Project Witness seeks to change the way the Holocaust is viewed. Lichtenstein believes that the period is often reduced to a footnote in history books or becomes an overused point of contrast. She says it is frequently referenced, but little understood.
In her desire to help future generation remember without the benefit of direct witnesses, Ruth Lichtenstein feels that the lessons still resonate, that the forces of hatred still haunt the Jewish people. Therefore, Lichtenstein believes that the challenges of keeping the flame alive require us to work tirelessly to offer deeper understandings of the period and events.
Project Witness not only delivers personal stories of survivors, but explores the spiritual, ethical, and intellectual responses of those directly affected by the Holocaust. It focuses on the character, identity, and faith of survivors and victims alike to ensure that their legacies help future generations build a brighter future.
Lichtenstein believes that the lessons of the ways Jews in occupied Europe, particularly in the ghettos and concentration camps of Eastern Europe, heroically struggled against impossible odds to maintain Jewish values offer key lessons. Her curriculum delves into the reasons that Jews maintained their religious faith in the worst of circumstances, and the strength it took to organize charitable and cultural initiatives under German rule, at great risk to their own lives. This spiritual revolt, which pitted the Jewish life-affirming values of intellect, compassion, and the sanctity of life against the Nazi ethos of violence, racism, and death, are lessons Lichtenstein believes will survive countless generations beyond the last survivor.
Her organization has looked to build a country-by-country history of the Holocaust, and Lichtenstein’s amazing book, “Witness to History,” is simply one that belongs in every single Jewish home. Lichtenstein is convinced that just as stories of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Jewish resistance were powerful images for young Jews, she believes that the spiritual resistance to the Nazis is a model for all communities – that it teaches people how to live with compassion, faith, and dignity.
For her work, her faith, and her commitment to the Jewish people, Ruth Lichtenstein must not only be applauded, but assisted by us all in the monumental task. Her work is likely to have a lasting impact on Jews for many generations to come.