St. John’s University’s Jewish Heritage Day, held on April 20, offered a podium for Holocaust survivor Bernard Gotfryd to share what he called an “undigested lump” of hisexperiences with the crowd, words that need to be heard. As he noted, it is his duty to enlighten the masses with his life experiencebecause “evil results when good people do nothing.”
Cantor Moti Fuchs of the Hillcrest Jewish Center urged the crowd to stand up at the first signs of injustice in the world before the small things turn into atrocities of colossal proportions.
Cynthia Zalisky, executive director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, recounted her “credentials” as the granddaughter of victims of the Holocaust. Her mother found out about her grandfather’s death during a chance encounter with a frightened Jewish man in Poland. With tears in his eyes, the man said to her, “I was with your father. I can tell you the day that he died.” He was one of six million Jews cruelly deprived of life during the Holocaust. Those who managed to survive were often plagued with guilt as to their own chance to live while their kin suffered an unfortunate fate.
It is this suffered fate that unites the Jewish community, lucky to have Holocaust survivors to share their firsthand experiences. The later generations may not have been there in body, but retain theindelible impressions of a shared history in their unwavering commitment to keeping their story alive.
“The Holocaust isn’t just one person,” said Mark Kandkhorov, President of the Jewish Students Association. “It’s a family.”
Councilman Eric Gioia spoke of Darfur as the first genocide of the 21st century occurring in real time. He urged the audience to boycott financiers of the genocide, including companies like Petro China, which contributes 70 percent of its profits to these unconscionable efforts.
As for the efforts to survive, Bernard Gotfryd understands that freedom is a precious gift not to be taken for granted but a virtue to stand up and fight for. He is a man whose duty as a survivor is totell of his unfathomable experiences, but he does not just speak. His eyes illuminate his words, and he laughs just as easily as he assumes a solemn stance.
As a youth, he was shuttled between six concentration camps. He was trapped, starved, removed from his friends and family, and surrounded by death. He chose to be hopeful because giving up was too easy. Herefused to allow his spirit to be crushed.
A father and son musical team comprised of Yuri and Daniel Beliavsky provided a heartrending soundtrack to the lectures. Reflections of the past were woven into the violin and piano songs of Maurice Rasel’s “Kaddisch,” the Jewish prayer for the dead, while the opening prayer of Yom Kippur, “Kol Nidre,” propelled the audience into the future with vows of improvement dispersed in the notes of hope.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, however, is about hope. Exploring this topic isn’t about imposing an emotional toll on oneself; it is about those snapshots in time that were almost impossible to believe. It isabout the horrific conditions human beings are capable of inflicting upon each other. It is about our duty to stand up when things go wrong. It is about a man, Bernard Gotfryd, and a people, those of Jewish ancestry, who dug themselves out of this gorge. It is about sitting next to a man whose life you can never truly understand, but trying to because you are thankful that he is even sharing these precious pieces of himself. This is the story of a refusal to take a seat in remembrance of the six million fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, lovers, friends, and strangers who were brought together in a despicable tragedy. It is now our duty toremember the pains of the past lest we find ourselves in trying situations. As Bernard Gotfryd noted,”If anyone told me all of thesethings happened, I would doubt them.”