The Yeshiva University community, both national and international, came together on the evening of Wednesday, April 27, 2022, for the annual commemoration of Yom HaShoah. The audience gathered in the storied Nathan Lamport Auditorium in Zysman Hall on the Wilf campus was joined by hundreds online through a special livestream that allowed those not in the room to watch the proceedings.
The event was aimed at honoring the memory of those killed in the Holocaust in Europe and featured moving opening remarks by Shmuel Horowitz, co-president of the Student Holocaust Education Movement, or SHEM§, the singing of the national anthem and Hatikvah by Zak Benarroch, the reading of Martin Niemöller’s “Then They Came for Me” by New York City Council Member Eric Dinowitz and the lighting of the candles. Student organizers also performed a special reenactment of scenes from The Investigation, a play by German playwright Peter Weiss that depicts the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963–1965,* as a way of introducing the testimony of the event’s keynote speaker, Anna Waller, a childhood survivor.
In the play, Weiss aimed to have the audience feel what it must have been like to be a victim transported to Auschwitz. At one point, as the student actors moved briskly through the scenes, Anna Waller, the actual survivor, was skillfully interwoven into the action of the play. There was a palpable dramatic effect in the audience as they realized that the voice coming to them came from a person who had actually been there, a voice unfiltered by a playwright or stagecraft.
Waller could not be in person in Lamport Auditorium that evening, but she offered a touching and strong-voiced video testimony of her experiences and understandings. She ended her eloquent and powerful narrative with a call to action in a time of what she considered stark political polarization that was energizing the power of racist and anti-Semitic forces:
“These have brought into full focus for me the immense threat we face in this world. … [T]o speak up and bear witness, I no longer feel that this is a choice for me, but it has become an obligation. Childhood survivors are the last living witnesses of the Holocaust, with actual memories of the atrocities. So, my message to the younger generation is, Don’t be complacent. Guard and protect our democratic values and be active on whatever level you can. Become involved in your communities. Give a helping hand. Speak up for justice and equality for all. Protect everyone’s right to vote. Defend our ability to live in peace in spite of all the threats. And so, with this, I am bearing witness.”
Waller’s moving words set the context for the comments of the final three presenters.
Following up on Waller’s call for the need to confront the rise of hatred, New York State Assemblymember Nily Rozic (D-Queens) spoke about the necessity of increasing the reach of Holocaust education in the schools. A 2020 study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 63% of Millennials and Gen Z didn’t know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
“We have to connect the dots,” she observed. “We have to teach future generations about the Holocaust, and it is imperative that schools across New York teach lessons of the Holocaust to ensure students remember the consequences of hate and inaction.” She encouraged everyone in the audience to support Assembly Bill A472A that “authorizes the commissioner of education to conduct a study regarding courses of study on the Holocaust within the state.”
As she noted, “We can’t expect anti-Semitic hate crimes to go down until we teach everyone, every student, what happens when hate is left unchecked.”
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, before leading the audience in a recitation of Kel Maleh, picked up on Waller’s call to action by thanking the students organizing and attending the event because “your presence honors the memories of the fallen. You are the reason that the survivors survive. You are the hope of all who perished. You are the future.”
And Dr. Shay Pilnik, director of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, concluded the ceremonies by observing that because “we still live in the shadow of the Holocaust in the third decade of the 21st century,” it is crucial that “we come together every year with a renewed pledge to never forget and never let it happen again” and offer up remembrance and thanks to those who engaged in an “armed and spiritual resistance” against Hitler and the forces of hate and extermination that he represented.
§The Student Holocaust Education Movement Board: Avraham Walkenfeld, Bayla Weiner, Deena Hornstein, Joshua Wiener, Natalie Barbanel, Sara Elyassian, Sara Wulfsohn, Sarah Berman, Shani Mizrahi
*The cast of The Investigation included
- Accused #1: Joshua Wiener
- Accused #8: Eli Sandhaus
- Black Shirt Soldier:Gillian Herszage
- Counsel for the Defense:Yitzy Warren
- Hungarian Soldier: Gillian Herszage
- Judge: Sara Elyassian
- Prosecuting Attorney: Zev Granik
- Voiceover for Witness #10: Anna Waller
- Witness #1: Gillian Herszage
- Witness #3: McKenzie Kyte
- Witness #4: Elisheva Hirsch
- Witness #5: Miri Granik
- Witness #7: Sara Wulfsohn
- Witness #10: Miri Granik
- Young Anna: Elisheva Hirsch
- Young Anna’s Mother: McKenzie Kyte