While Jews worldwide united to remember the murdered millions in the Holocaust for Yom Hashoah on Thursday, Hebrew Academy High School students heard speaker Mark Blechner, son of Holocaust survivor Salo Blechner, share the story of his family’s plight during World War II.
Blechner began his family’s story with an observation.
“There is no Hebrew word for ‘history’ from any textual source,” he said. “It lives inside of us. We have to experience and feel our history. It’s a rotating cycle of events we are all a part of.”
Blechner spoke about how while the trauma and fear of his father permeated facets of his childhood, he had never really been exposed to his family’s history when he was growing up. He had never known about his father’s past in regards to the Holocaust because Salo didn’t ever speak about it. Blechner knew there was a Holocaust, but he didn’t know that his father’s tattoo of 69717 on his arm or the fact that his paternal grandparents were no longer alive, were affiliated with the Holocaust. He later realized that his father grew angry when he didn’t finish the food on his plate because they didn’t have food in the concentration camps; and that every year at the Pesach seder when his father slammed his hagada shut and began crying at the mention of slaves making bricks, it was due to the horrors of making bricks in the camps.
It wasn’t until Blechner’s father gave him four shoe boxes filled with about three hundred letters that allowed him to understand his family’s past. He embarked on a four year odyssey to transcribe letters between his grandmother and great uncle, traveling far and wide to seek help in deciphering his mother’s dialect. The journey allowed for Blechner to learn about his family along the way, and he now shares his story with audiences worldwide.
The story began in Munich, Germany where Blechner’s family lived and where his father grew up. His father was one of four brothers, three of whom escaped the war into Switzerland, Boston and the United Kingdom. Blechner refers to the story as that of four brothers, four journeys, and four stories.
Salo and his parents never experienced any direct threats, traveling regularly to different parts of Europe well into 1939. Letters of correspondence and postcards were written between family members, some now valued to be worth millions of dollars. Mina, Mark’s grandmother, wrote to her sons in the UK and Switzerland, but was executed in 1941, after her husband, Blechner’s grandfather, was murdered and cremated in the camps. His ashes were sent back to Mina before her execution, and she buried them in a Polish cemetery, which Blechner and his cousins would later visit. Blechner’s father, Salo, was imprisoned in the camps for six years, both in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, eventually being freed from Belsen in 1945.
Upon his liberation from the camps, Salo authored a letter that began with the words “Ich lebe!”, translated into English as “I’m alive!” Salo was given his certificate of rebirth on May 5th, 1945, exactly 71 years from this past Thursday, the day of Yom Hashoah.
The talk sparked a strong reaction among students.
“Today I realized that we-my classmates, friends and I-are the answer to the Nazis and their failure,” said Mery Kamhazi (9th grade). “We have always been here and we’ll always be here, and nobody will ever erase us from this world.”
Many students said the talk helped them understand and commemorate Yom Hashoah.
“It was really interesting and meaningful,” said Yakov Schwab (9th grade). “I think it had a great effect on the students and really got through to us.”
On a day when Jews around the world came together to remember the millions lost, Hebrew Academy students were inspired to ensure the Holocaust would never happen again.
“Things like this make me want to take a stand and advocate for my people,” said Yisroel Goldstein (9th grade). “The memory of those murdered will remain forever in our minds and the torch will be lit for future generations.”
By: Raquel Zohar