It could have been the setting for any organizational retreat — the stately mansion, the manicured lawns, an oasis on the edge of the city where leadership groups could come together to brainstorm and strategize.
This, however, wasn’t a typical retreat. It was the villa that housed the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis strategized on how to carry out the Final Solution (to the Jewish question). I was astonished at the level of detail and meticulous planning. The walls were adorned with notes from the meeting, maps identifying Jewish populations and the intricate plans on how to exterminate the Jewish people.
I visited Berlin in April as part of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) National Young Leadership Cabinet (NYLC) mission to Berlin and Israel. In Berlin, we had the honor of hearing from Margot Friedlander, a Holocaust survivor who had immigrated to New York following the war and at age 89 moved back to Germany to tell her story. She told us she speaks for those who cannot.
We took part in a memorial ceremony at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and walked along the railroad tracks at Track 17, tracks that transported tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps.
The trip was numbing.
My maternal grandparents, Harry and Hanna Delowsky, were Holocaust survivors; my grandfather was liberated from Auschwitz, my grandmother from Bergen Belsen. They didn’t talk to me about their experiences, but I learned what they had gone through from their friends, from my own research and ultimately, years later, from listening to interviews they had done through the USC Shoah Foundation, founded by Steven Spielberg. Here I was in Berlin, the birthplace of the Final Solution, adding to my understanding of the utter horrors of the Shoah.
As we walked the streets of Berlin, the struggle of the current generation to painfully remember the horrid past was palpable. A synagogue that survived the Kristallnacht attacks in 1938, new schools built upon the ruins of my people, and on every block Stumbling Stones — bricks engraved with the names of Nazi victims and embedded on the sidewalks in front of the houses where they had lived. Everywhere we turned, the city had one eye focused on the past and an outstretched arm trying to pull an entire country into the future. It was a trip I never expected to take, never wanted to experience, but will always remember.
The experience reinforced the passion that I have for Holocaust education. I had co-founded Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust, a project for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh (an affiliated organization of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh), which used the comic book medium to bring the real life stories of survivors, resistance fighters, soldiers, and international spies to light. We did not add special powers or fictional characteristics; rather we highlighted the strength, courage and love that exist inside all of us. By shifting the paradigm to celebrating those who survived, while honoring those who perished, we hoped to ignite a new generation of storytellers for the passing survivor generation.
Now mostly in their 80s and 90s, some Holocaust survivors again are experiencing difficult times. My grandparents, may their memories be a blessing, prospered in the United States. Other survivors haven’t been as fortunate. I was astounded to learn that 25 percent of Holocaust survivors in the United States live in poverty, struggling to meet such basic needs as food, health care and housing. More so than others in their age bracket, survivors have difficulty living in assisted living or nursing home facilities. Some survivors show signs of delayed-onset post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfamiliar showers can lead some to have flashbacks of gas chambers, and uniformed staffers and regimented schedules stir up memories of concentration camps. The ability to age in place, in their own homes and communities, is critical.
That’s why, upon arriving in Israel after an emotional journey through Berlin, the NYLC launched a fundraising effort to support the Jewish Federations’ Holocaust Survivor Fund, which helps local communities provide home health care, counseling, transportation, socialization, nutrition and emergency assistance. Each of us has pledged to make a direct contribution and/or raise a minimum of $360 to help meet those basic humanitarian needs — and to encourage our peers to do the same. As our Jewish Federations’ Rabbi David Kessel expressed, the educational theme of our study mission — from “degradation to dignity” — has heightened our sensitivity to life’s challenges faced by many Holocaust survivors today.
The children being born today are the first generation that will not remember meeting a survivor. It is the duty of our current generation — the generation that has been privileged to hear survivors’ stories firsthand — not only to ensure that future generations learn those stories, but also to ensure that survivors can live out their last days in dignity.
Drew Goldstein, a Pittsburgh resident, is the principal of the RoundSquare Group, LLC, a consulting firm. He was most recently named Retreat co-chair of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, leadership philanthropic program for Jewish men and women ages 30 to 45 across the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about JFNA’s National Young Leadership program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.