By Alice Matsas Garten
Co-Chair, Holocaust Remembrance Commission
Baltimore Jewish Council
What were your thoughts when you heard that three people were murdered outside a Kansas City Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living facility?
Were you surprised to hear that in eastern Ukraine flyers were distributed requiring Jews to register or face deportation?
What do we tell our children about anti-Semitism in today’s society? What do we tell our children about the Holocaust?
Each year, during the traditional Passover seder, families across the world recount the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The story is not meant to be just a retelling of the events. According to our Haggadah, “In every generation, each person must regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt.” We tell one another that if G-d had not delivered us from Egypt, we would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. This tradition is meant to connect us personally to an event that occurred such a long time ago.
My family’s seder, like so many others, keeps the old traditions while adding new practices. We have always had a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs, reflecting both my father’s and mother’s upbringings, but we now recite the following lines: “In addition to the exodus from Egypt, we also are reenacting our family’s exodus from Agrinion (Greece) to the mountains on October 3, 1943. If my father, aunt, and grandparents did not escape from the Germans, we would not be here today.” As my parents have taught me, and as I teach my children, the Holocaust was not an event that just happened far away and long ago. It is our story and the story of our future generations.
I remember as a child having to explain patiently that yes I was Greek, and yes I was Jewish. Growing up I heard more often than not that the person never met a Greek Jew and did not know that there even were Jews in Greece. In fact, Jewish communities in Greece existed before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. In the 15th century, when the Turks occupied Greece, Jews who were expelled from Spain, Portugal, and Italy found a new homeland. By 1940, there were 77,000 Jews in Greece. Four years later, 87 percent of the Jewish population had perished, including 127 of my relatives.
Although I grew up with my family’s stories of loss and survival, I was not engaged in Holocaust education until five years ago when I volunteered to assist with Lessons of the Shoah, an interfaith Holocaust education program for high school students, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I was impressed by these Jewish and Catholic students who were learning about each other’s traditions as well as the history of Catholic-Jewish relations. These teenagers studied the atrocities during the war, but, in my opinion, the most meaningful experience they had was meeting with a Belgian Holocaust survivor, Mrs. Rachel Bodner, and a survivor of modern genocide, Mr. Georges Mushayuma, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo. An image that I will not forget took place after their presentation when the petite, elderly Mrs. Bodner and tall, young Mr. Mushayuma were engaged in animated conversation in their native French. Their worlds were not that far apart after all.
All we have to do is read today’s headlines, and it is too easy to believe that hatred and prejudice can over power reason and compassion. Fortunately, we have a community of survivors willing to share their stories. In 2013-14, the BJC sent speakers to a total of 65 schools and other institutions where they spoke to over 6,000 students and adults. We know that first hand accounts create powerful images. Our community needs to make sure that we maintain Holocaust Remembrance and Education as a priority.
The story of the Holocaust is not limited to survivors and their families. It is everyone’s story.
The Baltimore Jewish Council’s annual Yom Ha’Shoah event will be held on Sunday, April 27 at 5:00 p.m.