It is an unavoidable fact that the passing of years has steadily reduced the number of living Holocaust survivors. Their voices have served as the single-most powerful reminder that this world-shaking tragedy indeed took place, that unspeakable brutality once ruled the day, and that constant vigilance is our only hope of preventing a recurrence.
As the world prepares to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, we are launching a yearlong series, “Honoring the Survivors.” In each issue of J. we will profile a Holocaust survivor or partisan who lives in the Bay Area, and whose story stands as a beacon of light and hope. Our first honoree is Marin resident Joseph Pell, 95, a Polish-born Jew who lost most of his family in the early days of the war but proved a hero when he joined the partisans in the forest, bravely fighting the Nazi invaders for more than two years.
Pell later settled in San Francisco and became a classic American success story, first as an ice cream parlor owner and then as a real estate magnate. But he never forgot the past, devoting many of his later years to retelling his story.
Nothing in the realm of Holocaust education has the impact of hearing directly from survivors. They have made the difference, certainly in this country, when it comes to teaching younger generations the lessons of the Holocaust.
As the number of survivors dwindles, so, too, does the likelihood that non-Jews will absorb those lessons. A survey released this week by the Pew Research Center showed that only 45 percent of Americans know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and only 38 percent of teens surveyed knew the number of Jews killed. The same study revealed that 25 percent of those polled did not know how Hitler came to power in Germany. Of the questions asked in the survey, teens gave fewer correct answers than adults.
This does not bode well for the future of Holocaust education in America, especially given the steady loss of survivors. When the day finally comes that there is no one left living to tell the stories, what will we do to honor their memory and sear the lessons into the conscience of our descendants?
It is not too early to start figuring out the answer to that question. Thankfully, with local organizations such as the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco and the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation, which work to preserve the personal histories of survivors and victims, as well as our Jewish family service agencies, we have an excellent foothold. But it will take a strong communal effort going forward.