At Yom HaShoah commemorations across Los Angeles, the Jewish community and friends looked to the past to remember and to the present to engage.
The Citywide Youth Commemoration at Wilshire Boulevard Temple on April 9 was a by-the-kid, for-the-kids affair, with elementary, middle and high school students presenting artistic renditions of their understanding of the Holocaust. Through song, story, poetry and the testimony of survivors they had interviewed, students from 15 Los Angeles area schools ensured that the memory of what happened will be passed on to the next generation. After the Emanuel Academy sang the Yiddish "Partisan's Song," students from Fulton Middle School recounted a survivor's testimony, "Seven Days Locked Up," in English and Spanish.
The state got involved in Yom HaShoah in part by honoring a Holocaust educator. Peter Fischl had spent his childhood in hiding in Budapest, and though he lost his family, he moved to America and forged a life for himself, working as a security guard for Pinkerton. Though he claims, "I am not a poet -- you cannot ask me or pay me to write a poem," Fischl was so inspired by a Holocaust-era photo that his poetic response has become the basis of a high school curriculum on the Holocaust.
The photo, which Fischl first saw in a November 1960 Life Magazine, shows a young boy, arms up, fearfully walking away from Nazi gunmen during the roundup of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Fischl's poem, "To the Little Polish Boy Standing With His Arms Up," reads in part: "And the monument will tremble/ so the blind world/ Now/ will know/ What fear is in the darkness." It ends: "I/ am/ Sorry/ that/ It was you/ and/ Not me."
Fischl's poem inspired Morristown, N.J., English teacher Nancy Gorrell to develop a high school curriculum called, "Teaching Empathy Through Ecphrastic Poetry," to teach students to put themselves in the emotional place of Holocaust victims.
For his part in the curriculum, along with his long history of outreach in local schools, the state Lottery awarded Fischl its Hero in Education Award. The award ceremony will be broadcast on KCAL Channel 9 at 7 p.m.on Saturday, May 18. Educators can download lesson plans using the poem at www.holocaust-trc.org/lesson.htm'pb.
At Valley Beth Shalom on April 12, Rabbi Harold Schulweis and the VBS congregation continued their Yom HaShoah tradition of honoring the stories of Holocaust heroism. In previous years, VBS has celebrated the efforts of people in Denmark, Italy and Spain to save Jews. This year, the little known but extremely successful efforts of Bulgarian leaders was spotlighted.
Princess Maria Louisa of Bulgaria and Metropolitan Galactyon, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church of Bulgaria, attended a Shabbat dinner at the synagogue honoring King Boris III of Bulgaria (the princess' father), who worked with Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders to convince the Nazis that Bulgaria's Jews were needed to work in Bulgaria.
Before World War II, there were approximately 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria. Immediately afterward, there were approximately 50,000.
Yom HaShoah is about more than the past. It is a day of remembrance, but also a day of vigilance. This was apparent at Sinai Temple on April 14, where tight security measures were in place for the dignitaries in attendance.
Among the officials on hand at the temple were Gov. Gray Davis; Mayor James Hahn; Rep. Brad Sherman; City Councilmembers Jan Perry, Nate Holden, Eric Garcetti, Jack Weiss and Alex Padilla; District Attorney Steve Cooley; L.A. Board of Education members Julie Korenstein and David Tarkofsky; Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke; Sheriff Lee Baca, and state senators and members of the Assembly.
The Temple Sinai event focused on the present, with Ambassador Dennis Ross (see below) and Davis devoting their remarks to the violence in Israel, connecting unjustifiable death past and present.
Israeli Consul-General Yuval Rotem urged Palestinian leadership to take heed of the lesson of our shared ancestor Abraham: "Our sons cannot be sacrificed, for any reason." Davis drew some of the loudest applause as he acknowledged "the shared values that Israelis and Americans hold," and told the multigenerational crowd "We unequivocally declare our support for the state of Israel."