Student-Organized Yom Hashoah Ceremony Commemorates Family and The Holocaust
Over 400 students, faculty and staff gathered in the Lamport Auditorium on the Wilf Campus on May 4 to commemorate Yom Hashoah, and remember the six million Jews who were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. The theme of this year’s ceremony, organized by SHEM, the Student Holocaust Education Movement at YU, was “Honoring Generations Lost: Family and the Holocaust.”
In her introductory remarks, SHEM Vice President Lani Prus ’17S described Jewish family life before the war, and how the successive stages of Nazi oppression led to its permanent shattering. A candle lighting ceremony, led by SHEM Programming Director Yael Steinberg ’17S, paid special tribute to “husbands and wives torn apart from each other, children ripped from their homes at a young age, our ancestors, sisters and brothers who perished,” as well as “the world of Torah that was destroyed and that we must rebuild.” The ceremony also honored Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives and went on to form new families—including surrogate families composed of other survivors—after the loss of their closest relatives.
“At the end of the day, every Jewish person is family,” said Emma Mael ’17S, SHEM’s creative designer.
The event also featured an interview with Holocaust survivor Martin Greenfield (conducted by SHEM President Yedidyah Weiss ’17YC), and renowned speaker and author Rabbi Hanoch Teller. Greenfield, a master tailor and the author of the highly acclaimed memoir, Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor (Regnery, 2014), was born in 1928 to an observant Jewish family in Czechoslovakia. He was deported to Auschwitz with his parents and siblings at the age of 15 and was the sole member of his family to survive. After coming to America post-war, the quality of Greenfield’s craftsmanship earned him the business of the country’s elites; he has outfitted a list of politicians and celebrities, including President Barack Obama. Greenfield, who received an honorary degree at YU’s 2015 Commencement, continues to work alongside his two sons.
Addressing the audience, Greenfield’s voice shook with emotion. “I cannot describe how happy I am to be invited to Yeshiva,” he said, adding that his four grandchildren were also in attendance. “I have to greet you and tell you how I feel. How lucky we are that we are in America… we’re the safest people to be here, and you are our future. I speak all over the world, but there is nothing like being here tonight, and if you would see in my heart, this is the happiest day of my life.”
Greenfield, who emphasized America’s benevolence and the importance of hard work to achieve excellence in one’s profession, first tailored as a concentration camp inmate. One day, he managed to retrieve and mend a discarded SS officer’s shirt. He wore this and a second salvaged shirt under his prison uniform, and said he believes the added layers of warmth saved his life.
Throughout his career, Greenfield never volunteered to clients that he was a Holocaust survivor. “They didn’t know unless they spoke to me,” he stated. “To them, I’m a person that helps you with a smile.” But, restraining tears, he acknowledged the deep grief over losing his mother and father: “I could never talk about my parents without tears in my eyes, because I don’t care how old you are, I could see them every minute of my days.”
Teller recounted stories directly from the Shoah and its aftermath—for example, Rabbi Aaron Kotler’s fierce attempt to gain federal U.S. permission to pay a German official one million dollars’ ransom for the 800,000 Jews still alive in Nazi concentration camps in early 1945 (an effort that ultimately failed), and how 10 Krakower Beis Yaakov students helped each other survive in Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. “If you’re of Ashkenazi ancestry, the reason you’re here is a miracle,” said Teller, who encouraged students to appreciate their parents and to create new families to uphold the memory of those who did not survive.
The student a cappella group Y-STUDS opened the event with “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah,” and punctuated the ceremony with moving performances of “Esa Einai,” “Kol Berama,” and “Ani Ma’amin,” songs of faith and resilience. Rabbi Menachem Penner, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Undergraduate Torah Studies, recited “Kel Malei,” the traditional prayer in memory of the dead. Matthew Allon ’18SB and Oona Welman ’17S were also on the SHEM committee that coordinated the event.