“I’m just one of more than 18,000 young people in over 750 congregations worldwide becoming a keeper of the flame of memory in the first post-survivor generation,” Trevor Goodman announced from the bimah during his bar mitzvah speech, referring to his involvement with Remember Us: The Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project.
As part of his mitzvah project, Trevor, 13, honored Paul Lerner, who was 7 months old when he was killed at the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp in southern France, 71 years before this ceremony, to the day, on Aug. 11, 1941.
In addition to remembering Paul Lerner, Trevor’s Aug. 11 bar mitzvah also represented a first for Remember Us: Paul’s brother, Daniel Lerner, traveled from Israel to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah.
“This is something unique that I haven’t seen before,” Remember Us Executive Director Samara Hutman said, referring to Daniel’s attendance. “It’s profound.”
Remember Us invites young people to use the occasion of their bar and bat mitzvahs to commemorate children who were killed in the Holocaust before they could have their own bar or bat mitzvah. The organization provides students with the name and biographical information about a child lost during the Shoah and suggests simple acts of remembrance, including mentioning the child in a speech.
Retired Jewish educator Gesher Calmenson founded Remember Us in 2003 in order to fill what he viewed as a void in Holocaust education.
“Children who we were teaching about the Holocaust weren’t given anything to do with the content of the history. [They were] given the facts but not given any way to respond that was meaningful,” Calmenson said.
Drawing inspiration from 1980s twinning programs that matched American Jews having a bar or bat mitzvah with Soviet Jews who couldn’t practice their faith, Calmenson expanded Remember Us from a small pilot project operating within eight Bay Area temple religious schools to an international movement. The program spread via “literally thousands of phone calls” to congregations around the country and through word of mouth, Calmenson said.
“We realized the outreach was more than about the program. It was also to be available for the dialogue,” Calmenson said. “It originally started as a program to bring this to teenage bar and bat mitzvah kids, but the subtext of our program was we had innumerable conversations with people who just wanted to talk about the Holocaust.”
Los Angeles resident Hutman took over as executive director in summer 2011 when Calmenson stepped down. The nonprofit has since opened its first office in Santa Monica with a part-time staff and dozens of volunteers.
Remember Us partners with Yad Vashem to receive biographies of lost children, and its regional partnerships across the United States — with organizations including the New York Board of Rabbis and the Nathan & Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee — have helped the organization grow. Foundations — including the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Charles and Mildred Schnurmacher Foundation and Tauber Foundation — have provided financial support in the form of grants.
Hutman, whose daughter participated in the program before she joined it as a board member four years ago, said she is working to expand Remember Us by developing ways for post-b’nai mitzvah teens to examine contemporary issues of injustice and encouraging collaborations between teens and survivors.
“Like all things with meaning and value, the more it grows, the bigger and more powerfully it grows,” she said. “I would attribute that solely to the strength and the beauty of the idea and the value of the idea.”
In May, Trevor Goodman contacted Hutman, a family friend, and asked to be connected with a child from Albi, France — the hometown of his grandmother, Marie Kaufman, who is active with the group Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles. Using Yad Vashem’s database of biographies of Holocaust victims, a Remember Us representative found Paul Lerner and sent information to Trevor.
Paul Lerner’s Yad Vashem memorial page included contact information for Daniel Lerner, albeit in Hebrew. After Trevor’s Israeli cousin translated the address, Trevor wrote a letter that contained information detailing how he would honor Lerner’s brother during his upcoming bar mitzvah. He sent the letter — one copy in English, one in Hebrew — to a small town outside of Tel Aviv.
“I wasn’t expecting a response, because we didn’t know if he was still living in that house,” Trevor said.
The letter came as a surprise to Lerner, 69, who thought no one else knew of his brother’s existence.
“I was stunned. I was moved. I cried, which doesn’t happen to me very often,” Lerner said.
Lerner replied to Trevor’s letter in English. “I can find no words to express my feelings about what you are doing to commemorate my brother,” Lerner wrote.
Trevor and his mother, Deena, invited Lerner to Los Angeles to attend Trevor’s bar mitzvah. After several e-mails and a Skype session, Lerner accepted the invitation, changing plans he’d made to travel to Paris to conduct doctoral research on Jewish forms of resistance during the Holocaust, including his father’s experiences with an underground communist movement in Paris.
Lerner, a healthy-looking man with an expressive face, white hair and a white mustache, never met his brother, Paul.
His parents, Baruch and Hadasa, fled Paris for southern France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Paul was born six months later, on Dec. 31, in the town of Albi. The couple was then interned at Argelès-sur-Mer, where Paul later died. Lerner’s parents then escaped and returned to Paris, where they fought for an underground resistance movement.
Daniel was born on Aug. 25, 1942. Less than a year later, the couple was caught by the French police. Baruch was handed over to the Germans, sentenced to death and executed on Oct. 1, 1943. Hadasa, who was sent to Auschwitz, survived and found Daniel, who was hidden by a non-Jewish family friend. Together, mother and son left for Israel.
On Aug. 11, after Trevor discussed his Torah portion — one of the last chapters of Deuteronomy, emphasizing the importance of gratitude — Lerner joined him on the bimah at Temple Isaiah to express how thankful he was that Trevor was honoring his brother.
Two days earlier, Trevor and Lerner were joined by family and friends, including Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, for an informal gathering at Trevor’s grandmother’s home, where child survivors discussed their memories and their pasts.
“We’re moving now from lived memory to historical memory, and consequently the more we can personalize it, the deeper we can make the ties, the more powerful,” said Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.
Berenbaum, also a Remember Us board member, said the organization, among other things, “recalls the memory of the deceased, and it rescues them from oblivion.”
“Look at this incredible story,” Berenbaum continued. “Here’s a man who never knew his brother — his brother died before he was born — [his brother has] been dead for 71 years, and all of a sudden somebody is remembering his brother. What powerful and unintended consequences for the family and both of them.”
When guests at Kaufman’s home asked Lerner about his past, he spoke of his time in the Israeli army, summarizing the quote written in every army camp: “People who have no past, have no future.”
“It took me many years to realize what it meant, and when I realized it, that’s when I started looking into my own past,” Lerner said. “Trevor, what he’s doing is exactly that.”
The power of the connection between Lerner and Trevor haven’t been on lost on the bar mitzvah student, who plans to remain in contact with Lerner.
Participation in Remember Us “could make a big difference in someone’s life,” Trevor said. “Dani, it was a big honor for him, and like he said, he was touched when he got my letter, and it meant a lot to him.”
For more information about Remember Us, visit remember-us.org.