Every year, Holocaust survivors ask the same question: Who will tell our story when we are gone?
It's a haunting question with no simple answer. At every Yom HaShoah, the world comes closer to the day when there will be no more survivors, no more eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust.
"The world stood by with closed eyes and closed doors," said survivor Harry Hankin at last week's East Bay Yom HaShoah community service at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro.
Hankin, an Oakland resident and member of Alameda's Temple Israel, told how he and his father were sent first to Dachau and then to England. He tried to tell people about what was going on in Germany, but no one listened. They accused him of being a war-monger.
From the other side of the bimah, 17-year-old Adelia Malmuth told about a statue outside one of the camps. At its base was a pile of ashes.
"Are people really capable of this? Look what they did to us," the Berkeley High School junior said. "It is now up to us to remember. To never forget. It is now up to us." She then lit a candle, took Hankin's hand and together they walked off the bimah.
Malmuth was one of 34 high school students who participated in the Ramah East European Seminar last summer. They went to Europe, but it wasn't a vacation. They were there to learn about the Holocaust and see for themselves the remnants — Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Majdanek and other camps.
Achim Lyon, also a junior at Berkeley High, described being in the crematorium at Theresienstadt, putting his hand on the wall and scraping off some ash. Realizing what it was — traces of Jews who died there — he panicked, rushed out and tried to clean off the soot.
"I wiped my hand, my finger on the grass but I couldn't get it off," Lyon told the congregation. "I thought of my grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor." At that moment, more than anything he wanted to be with her. She was the only person who could comfort him, who could make some sense out of what he was feeling.
The ash has long since disappeared, but it marked Lyon forever.
"Now you have a glimpse of what I've been through," said survivor René Molho, an Alameda resident and member of Temple Sinai in Oakland. He talked about smelling burning flesh and the anxiety of wondering if he'd be next. Molho lost his parents and brother in the Holocaust. "I felt guilty because I survived. But I know why. To tell the story."
Turning to Lyon, he added, "Now you will have to do it."
Theresienstadt, the "model" camp, was fixed up by the Nazis to show the Red Cross how good conditions were for the Jews. But one-fifth of the prisoners died there, said Rebecca Rudolph, another Berkeley High senior who visited the camp. (Other sources say 33,539 Jews died at Theresienstadt and 88,196 more were sent to other death camps.)
In a storage room that was also used as a synagogue, Rudolph saw the words of a prayer written in Hebrew on the wall. "May we witness Your merciful return to Zion," Rudolph said, translating. "All 34 of us davened Mincha, the afternoon service, in that synagogue."
After Rudolph read a poem she had written, survivor David Galant of Oakland spoke, asking, "As the survivor generation fades into history, who will carry the torch?"
It was a rhetorical question. The teenagers made that commitment when they visited the camps and when they testified about their experience at the Yom HaShoah service.
"There is a new generation to carry the torch and say meaningfully, 'Never again,'" said Galant , who is a member of Oakland's Temple Beth Abraham.
Almost 400 filled the synagogue, and more than a dozen synagogues and organizations had a hand in planning the service, which was done in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. Cantors Ilene Keys, Pamela Rothmann Sawyer, Richard Kaplan, Linda Hirschhorn and students from Tehiyah Day School sang Yiddish tunes and songs of the Holocaust.
High school students Peter Soskin, Michelle Silver, Zachary Appleby-Leo and Ariel Spritzer read excerpts from "Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries," edited by Laurel Holliday. As each finished their reading, they either blew out the candle they held or left it lit on the bimah, indicating whether their diarist lived through or perished in the Holocaust.
With the reciting of Kaddish, each phrase was punctuated with the name of a camp, 12 in all. Then Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah" ("The Hope"), was sung.
But most poignant were the accounts from three of the students who had been to the camps, juxtaposed with reflections from survivors. The service was Lyon's idea and what started out as planning meetings grew into an ongoing dialogue. The students were trying to understand the Holocaust — to make some sense out of what they saw. And the survivors helped them by sharing their experiences.
"I have been trying to involve kids in a meaningful way," said Molho, 81, who has organized the service for the past 24 years. This year it happened. "They were talking from the heart. I've already booked them for next year."
As he was getting ready to leave, Lyon told Molho that he was going to be away for a while, but he'd call when he got back. And the survivor and the student embraced.