NEW YORK (Apr. 21)
The youth are the bearers of future memory of the Holocaust, says Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering and Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors as well as of WAGRO, the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization.
Meed spoke on his expectations for Sunday’s ceremonies commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as well as his disappointment in the organized Jewish community for not doing all it could to work year-round to remember the Holocaust.
This year, for the first time since the annual commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, children of Holocaust survivors will play prominent roles in the ceremonies. Cochairmen are Rabbi Herschel Schacter and William Donat, a child survivor, whose father, Alexander, founded the Holocaust Foundation Library.
“I go to funerals of Holocaust survivors too often,” Meed told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, expressing concern for the passing of the generation of survivors. Although, he said, “I am seeing an interest in the Jewish community in remembering the Holocaust, I think it’s not enough. They should be more involved.”
However, Meed made sure to praise the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which, through its own Holocaust commission, has gotten increasingly involved in commemorative and educational activities in the last three years.
SAYS HOLOCAUST IS BEING COMMERCIALIZED
Generally, though, he thinks that “The Holocaust is being used for commercial purposes by everyone,” Meed said, “but when it comes to action, it’s left to the survivors.”
Meed, who survived both the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Polish uprising a year later after hiding as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, feels keenly the need to perpetuate the memory of what happened to the Jews during World War II by actively publicizing it and working toward this memory year-round, not only on certain days of memorials. “I am a survivor,” Meed said. “I’m involved in organizing this (the Warsaw Ghetto commemoration) 25 years in New York City. It’s a lifetime.”
LARGEST COMMEMORATION EXPECTED THIS YEAR
Meed, and other survivors, started work for WAGRO with only 180 people. Since then, activities have tripled, he said, “90 percent through the work of Holocaust survivors.” This year, the ceremonies, to take place at the Felt Forum of Madison Square Garden, will be the largest commemoration ever in New York of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, said Meed. They are expecting 7,000 to come to the Forum, which seats only 6,000. “People will be in the streets listening on loudspeakers,” he said.
Meed’s wife, Vladka, also a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and an author of Holocaust literature, will be guest speaker Sunday in Israel, where 25,000 people are expected to converge on Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot, the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz.
Meed said this year will witness the largest participation in events in the world commemorating the Holocaust. A million people this year, he said, are attending commemoration ceremonies throughout the United States, a figure he has come up with through his activities as co-chairman of the Days of Remembrance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. The Days of Remembrance are the seven days following the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. In Israel, the date is commemorated as Yom Hashoah.
There will be events in 50 states, Meed said. There are about 60,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors throughout the nation, he emphasized. “What I am interested in is not so much about the Holocaust but what did we do with our lives after the war?. How did we become part of the community? That is the work that occupies me 365 days a year. It’s not only the commemoration that I’m doing. I’ve devoted my entire life to this.”
IMPACT OF DEMJANJUK TRIAL
Meed says that the trial of John Demjanjuk has helped keep the memory alive in Israel. “I think that bringing Demjanjuk to trial in Israel does two things: First, it’s saying that we Jews are not taking vengeance. We are bringing the person to court. And it will be up to the court to decide Demjanjuk’s fate.
“But at the same time, people all of a sudden were awakened, not by the trial, but by testimony of the Holocaust survivors, witnesses who told the story. Demjanjuk was not the only murderer in Treblinka. Unfortunately, we cannot get our hands on them. But from the witnesses who were there, what was done to us — 850,000 people — it’s very difficult for anybody to understand what that means. Not only that they were killed, but that it was arranged to erase the trace of everything that happened there. God forbid, if the war would have been six months longer, there would have been no survivors, and there would be no witnesses. So that is why it is so important, and that’s why when the young Israelis are coming to court, they’re not coming just to see Demjanjuk. They’re coming to listen to the story of the Holocaust survivors, to listen to the total story. Demjanjuk is just a symbol of the murders, but not the whole thing. But the story of the survivors is what awakened the interest of the young generation in Israel.”
‘A JEWISH NATIONAL TRAGEDY’
Meed said he wants the Jewish community to understand that “this is not just a matter which should concern Holocaust survivors. They should understand that this is a Jewish national tragedy, and the work must be continued by the Jewish people to be remembered, for generations. And we did the job, but the rest of the community, and the youth, have the duty to be more involved. I am commending those who are involved, but it isn’t enough.”
The second generation, said Meed, should “be part of us right now” so that it is assured that the memories will be ongoing, that they will not fade. “We don’t want to leave a vacuum.”