INTERNATIONAL HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY 1.27.24
In memory of the Holocaust, I want to share some notes I took on a trip to Eastern Europe with my husband and two dear friends during the first two weeks of October 2023. We toured Jewish heritage sites, feeling the poignancy of long-ago tragic events until we faced the hard news of the war on Israel that began on October 7. We stayed up late, every night, glued to CNN until we were bleary eyed, watching the horrific devastation with fear and terror in our hearts. We would rise exhausted each morning to resume our walking tours that constantly brought home the fears and horrors experienced by Jews in Europe running from the Nazis.
We spent three full days in Budapest, touring both sides of the Danube, the Jewish Quarter, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park Garden and the Great Dohany Street Synagogue with the Jewish Museum to appreciate the extensive collection of Judaica and the outdoor Tree of Life Holocaust memorial where remarkably I saw my own Strausz family names among the 400,000 lost.
We left by train for a seven-hour journey to Prague to tour the magical city of castles, museums, and historic sites. One day we were driven to the Nazi Theresienstadt Concentration Camp outside of Prague. This site was initially an old Czech fortress first used by the Nazis for housing displaced Jews before becoming a work camp and concentration camp for 150,000 Jews during WWII. Perhaps most touching was the display of the art made by children while they were living in the camp. The Terezin Memorial keeps alive the memory of the victims of religious persecution during the Nazi occupation. Today the site provides educational programs and films that document the lives and history of the more than 150,000 Jews who lived and perished there.
We drove back to Prague in silence to tour the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Europe, The Maisel Synagogue. The Germans intended to use it as “a museum of artifacts for the exterminated race of the Jewish people.” The Synagogue has a sad history. Mordecai Maisel, a 15th century philanthropist donated much of his money to support housing for Polish Jews, and he built several synagogues, a hospital and paved all the streets with cobblestones. One of his last projects was in 1598 when he bought property to extend the Old Jewish Cemetery. After he died, his assets were confiscated, and the original Maisel Synagogue was destroyed, later replaced by a newer one. I lingered in the Jewish Museum noting the many memorable artifacts, and I felt not only grief and sadness but pleasure too that so many of the beautiful items were preserved and gloriously displayed.
In the Jewish Cemetery we walked slowly around the 12,000 gravestones. Our thoughts turned to the thousands of buried remains bearing the names of our people. The earliest tombstone dates back to 1439. Due to lack of space, the bodies were buried on top of each other throughout the years, sometimes piling up to 10 bodies in one grave. I will NEVER FORGET the experience of being there, as the autumn rain fell around us, mixing with our tears.
We toured in silence the Pinkas Synagogue, a living Holocaust memorial to 80,000 Jewish Victims from Bohemia and Moravia which exhibited children’s drawings from Terezin made during 1942-1944. Our eyes took in what first resembled designs on the walls, but which on closer inspection turned out to be thousands and thousands of names of Jews who perished, written in black and red ink and covering every wall inside the building. As we walked through this somber place a voice continuously recited each name aloud.
Just three months before our European journey we met Terry Swartzberg, a leading figure in the Stolpersteine movement. The Stolpersteine are street pavers covered by a brass plaque, each recording the names and fates of Jewish holocaust victims. They are placed outside the last freely chosen homes of the memorialized victims (or where their homes would have been.) Swartzberg was invited to speak at the Zekelman Holocaust Museum in Farmington Hills as head of the group’s Munich chapter. His work helps young people understand Jewish life and provides innovative ways to commemorate the Holocaust. Swartzberg quotes the Talmudic phrase “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” Visit the website: https://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home
As a result of the Stolpersteine movement’s efforts, we found these memorials wherever we went in Europe. Over 90,000 memorial stones have been laid in more than 2000 cities in 28 European countries making this the largest Holocaust memorial in the world. It continues to grow and teach with each stone that is placed.
On the final leg of our European adventures, we took a train to Berlin for 3 days of incredible history. Boarding German trains brought to light old fears with me. We toured the Topography of Terror (former Gestapo and SS-area), The Reichstag, Museum Island and Tier Garten Park with guided tours of more historic sites which left indelible images in our minds and hearts. We experienced the cold and dark Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, The Book Burning Memorial, The Empty Benches memorial, The Wall of Mirrors, The Adass Yisroel memorial, The Jewish Quarter, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin’s historical center where Moses Mendelssohn is buried, The Block of Women, Memorial Track 17, a former deportation station that commemorates thousands of Jews deported from the city by train. Daniel Libeskind’s spectacular Jewish Museum with its haunting art and beautiful exhibits. NEVER FORGET
We discovered Stolpersteine in Budapest, Prague and Berlin. It was emotional to stop and acknowledge the tiny stone memorials. We spoke the names aloud and we remembered them with L’Chaim. To Life. May their lives be a blessing.
Our travels left us with indelible memories and rekindled our hope, even in the face of disturbing current events, praying that the future will be better for those of us who are alive to make a difference.