I’m sitting here in Or Ami’s sanctuary as about 100 teenagers – 7th to 11th grades – and a handful of parents sit in silence, listening to Rita Lurie tell the story of surviving the Holocaust. In commemoration of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass which began the Holocaust, we committed our young people to become witnesses.
Rita was five years old when she was forced to flee her home in Poland to hide from the Nazis. From the summer of 1942 to mid-1944, she and fourteen members of her family shared a nearly silent existence in a cramped, dark attic. Her brother, then her mother died before her eyes. Through the attic window, she saw an uncle shot before their eyes. Then, her surviving family spent five years wandering through Europe, waiting for a country to accept them.
We tried to help our teens understand the significance of this moment. I recalled the moment that half of them stood on this bimah with their parents and grandparents as Torah was passed down midor lador, from generation to generation. Each of them remembered the moment they held our heavy sefer Torah, Torah scroll, heavy both because it was physically heavy but moreso because it was a heavy burden they assumed. They were now responsible to carry Torah and its values into the world and to pass it onto the next generation.
Today, I told them, they assume another burden. They become witnesses to the tragedy, the fiery hell called the Holocaust. Reminding these young people that within ten years there will be very few survivors still living, I urged them to listen carefully. In ten years, when people lie and suggest that the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that 6 million didn’t die, or that just a few were killed, there will not be survivors to tell the truth. These young people sitting in our synagogue need to remember this story and become the witnesses, the truth-tellers about the Holocaust.
With her daughter Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, Rita co-authored Bending Toward the Sun, a Mother and Daughter Memoir. A beautifully written family memoir, Bending Toward the Sun explores an emotional legacy—forged in the terror of the Holocaust—that has shaped three generations of lives. Leslie Gilbert-Lurie tells the story of her mother, Rita, who like Anne Frank spent years hiding from the Nazis, and whose long-hidden pain shaped both her daughter and granddaughter’s lives. Bringing together the stories of three generations of women, Bending Toward the Sun reveals how deeply the Holocaust lives in the hearts and minds of survivors and their descendants.
I am not sure which moved me more: the horrifying story of the reality Rita experienced hiding from the Nazis, or the rapt attention our young people gave to Rita as she told her story.
Will they remember the story? Do they understand what really happened in the Holocaust? Can they stand as witnesses?
Only time will tell. We do our part making sure the stories are told, that the witnesses are heard. Then we hope and pray.
May the memory of the six million Jews and the five million others be for a blessing.