Who Will Tell the Story? I Will

The Shoah had seemed like far-off history, until this Jewish teen took part in an intimate gathering known as Zikaron BaSalon

by Marina Cemaj

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We are forgetting.

This year marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, and we are forgetting. It’s a sad truth. And if we’re not forgetting, we are definitely losing touch.

Seventy years seems so far away. As teenagers living in the 21st century, the Shoah seems untouchable — something in our past that will never happen to us. As Jewish teens, we’ve grown up hearing the stories of survivors, but what will happen to Yom Hashoah when nobody is left to tell us of the terrors they saw and the horrible events that happened in not-so-long-ago Europe? Our kids will read about it from a history book. They might even see videos and go to museums, but their connection to the Holocaust will be far gone. Ours is already slipping away.

But we can’t let that happen. And as USYers, we won’t.

LAZikaronBaSalonWhen l was first approached about hosting a “Zikaron B’Salon” event in my San Diego home (part of USY’s Far West region)  I was both excited and a little worried. Originally started by young people in Israel, Zikaron BaSalon, which translates as “Memories in the Living Room,” is a program which invites Holocaust survivors into homes to tell their stories in a setting that takes away the formality of remembrance ceremonies, and replaces it with something much more personal and intimate.

It brings the Holocaust, a traumatic event not only in Jewish history, but world history, into an environment that’s comfortable and safe, letting people engage with its terrible realities in a whole new way. This year, USYers commemorated Yom HaShoah by hosting Zikaron B’Salon events across North America.

For my event, the first thing I had to find was a Holocaust survivor. With the help of a teacher I found a woman named Rose who agreed to come. However,  because there are so few survivors left in the world today, their time is in high demand. Rose accidentally double booked her speaking engagements and had to cancel a few days before the event.

So, there I was, two days before Yom Hashoah, panicked, making phone calls. I had to find someone because I couldn’t just let another year pass where I only remembered Yom Hashoah vaguely through a Facebook post. I had to connect to it more, and I had to get others to remember, to care. But I was determined. Finally Miklosh Wallenfels, 81, another local survivor, agreed to come speak.

On Wednesday, April 15 at 6 pm, a small group of people ranging from ages 14 – 87 gathered in my living room to listen to Miklosh’s story. He wasn’t standing up, it wasn’t a presentation. Hearing his story was just about starting a conversation.

He sat in my living room with one leg crossed over the other, drinking water and eating blintzes my mom made as he told us about his life. Born in Hungary in 1934, he had lived an assimilated life. Miklosh and his family were part of the local community and enjoyed many rights that Jews in other European countries didn’t. For him the war and the Holocaust didn’t start until 1944.

The first signs of change for the Jews in Hungary was in the army. There the Jews serving were made to work in harder and were usually malnourished. His father was eventually enlisted and died soon afterwards.

When the Nazis finally came to Hungary in 1944, they took the Jews from their homes and divided them into groups — one group was people 10 and older and the other was for young children and senior citizens.

Miklosh and his mother were put in the 10 and older line while his younger sister and his grandmother were separated into the other group. In an act of desperation and on the spot thinking, Miklosh’s mother told him to run and hide in their attic until the Nazis left. He followed his mother’s orders and was saved, living in the Hungary Ghetto until the war was over. Miklosh’s mother died in the camps, but remarkably, his sister and his grandmother survived.

After the war they remained in Hungary, until the Soviets took over. In 1956, he and his wife had the chance to escape to America. There they lived in Buffalo where they started a family and later moved to San Diego.

Some of his family still lives in Buffalo, like his granddaughter Lauren, who in 2013 spent the summer with USY on Wheels, an immersive Jewish living and travel experience for teens. It amazed me how even during the Holocaust and the Soviet reign, Miklosh had to hide his Judaism and yet never lost sight of it. He still attends shul every Friday night, and as evidenced by the friendship I made with his granddaughter, who lives on the opposite side of the country from me but is also involved with USY, he passed on Jewish values to his children and grandchildren.

Zikaron B’Salon is so important because we cannot forget. We cannot lose touch. Seventy years is not that long ago, and “never again” really has to be never again. Not for the Jewish people and not for anyone else.

After Miklosh’s story, the group talked about how the Holocaust would be celebrated in the future when nobody was left to tell of their personal journey. I believe that that’s where my generation comes in.

We need to keep telling the story of the Holocaust, to speak for all those who suffered when they are no longer here to speak for themselves. We keep passing on the message, L’dor v’dor.

An event like Zikaron BaSalon allows us, as young people, to ask questions and have a conversation. It gives us the chance to get an up-close look at the terrors that happened 70 years ago in a way that I had never experienced before through big assemblies or the media. It gives us the chance to make the experience of remembering the Holocaust not merely a passive one, but one we can actively participate in and relate to. It gives us hope for the future and seeing what we, as young people, can do today to make it bigger and brighter.