Continuing the Conversation

Israeli Ambassador Ido Aharoni, Survivor Pola Jasphy and Students Reflect at Yom HaShoah Ceremony

In a darkened Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University’s annual Yom HaShoah ceremony, Stern College for Women student Michal Kupchik began an evening of Holocaust remembrance and reflection with a plea to the next generation.

“Each and every Jew was a world, and we lost 6 million worlds,” she said, standing before six figures on the stage, each wearing a sign that simply read ‘Jew.’ “There are no words to describe how I feel that my children will never know a survivor, but this reality is impending, so we must use our words and use them strongly—for the word ‘history’ is made up of the words ‘his story’ and ‘her story,’ and we are destined to repeat it if we forget.”

The theme of the ceremony, organized by YU’s Student Holocaust Education Movement, was “Continuing the Conversation,” emphasizing the need to keep the memory and dialogue about the Holocaust alive for future generations even after the original survivors are gone. Throughout the evening, speakers referred to the members of the audience as the “bridge” generation whose responsibility it would be to internalize and convey the experience of survivors to their own children or grandchildren.

“Continuing the conversation to me is about continuing the need to remember,” said Ambassador Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York, who spoke about the impact of the Holocaust on the founding of Israel and recounted conversations he had had with survivors, including Elie Wiesel, who told him, “I’m not concerned with how people will remember the Holocaust 5 to 10 years from now. I’m thinking about how they will remember it 500 to 1,000 years in the future—that’s how far ahead we should be thinking.”

“In a few years, your children will grow up without any real interaction with survivors,” Aharoni told the crowd. “Technology is great, but I think the second generation will have to step in. Our job is to continue the conversation, not just about radical evil, but of the richness of the lives that were lost. We need to internalize their existence so that it will never be forgotten.”

David Jasphy, president of YU’s Student Holocaust Education Movement (SHEM), led his grandmother, Pola Jasphy, on stage to share her own story of constant terror, flight and survival as a young girl in Poland. After her home and family were attacked repeatedly by German soldiers, she took to the forest to escape and spent years hiding wherever she could find shelter. She recalled a life of endless wandering in the woods, eating grass and rotten potato peels and watching as others from her community died of illness or starvation or were caught. Among her most vivid memories was the sight of the community cantor who, as he buried his last child on the road, raised his hands to the sky and cried, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?”

“They said because I wasn’t in the concentration camps, I was one of the lucky ones,” Jasphy said. “So you tell me how lucky I was.”

Hadassa Holzapfel, vice president of SHEM, offered unique insight into Jewish life in Germany today. Having grown up in Dusseldorf, one of the country’s largest Jewish communities, Holzapfel noted the difficulty of maintaining an observant lifestyle in a land where kosher foods were often hard to find and virulent public debate about ritual circumcision exposed a deep-seated anti-Semitism. “Germany is and always will be my home, but it’s still hard to be Jewish in Germany 70 years later,” she said. “But that’s why it’s so important for us to be Jewish there. Don’t define Germany just by its past—go there and understand what it is today.”

The evening included a screening of “These Are Our Words,” a new SHEM documentary project in which YU students and faculty discuss the crucial necessity of ensuring collective memory of the Holocaust lives on even when no more survivors remain to tell their stories, as well as what the most powerful points of connections were for them individually—whether it was visiting a camp or hearing a relative’s story. At its conclusion, the documentary poses a last question: “The Jewish nation lives on in you. How will you continue the conversation?”

The program concluded with a recitation of “El Maleh Rahamim” by YU President Richard M. Joel and a performance by the Y-Studs a capella group. Six candles were lit on stage to commemorate six different aspects of Holocaust remembrance: Pola Jasphy and her grandson Neil lit a candle to represent the link between survivors and the next generation; President Joel lit the second, representing the loss of a world of Torah and YU’s attempt to rebuild it; Hill Krishnan, adjunct instructor in political science at YU, lit a candle to represent the righteous gentiles who stepped in to help; and two Israeli Defense Force soldiers lit the fourth in commemoration of the resistance movements of the Holocaust.

The final two candles were lit by the SHEM board, in acknowledgement of the responsibility of Holocaust remembrance, and an elementary school student, to represent the children lost in the tragedy.