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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Naming memory

by David Suissa

December 7, 2011 | 5:16 pm

Adam Ungar was a happy kid who loved to ski and play the piano. He was a regular at his local synagogue, and he always looked forward to spending the holidays with his grandparents, who lived an hour away by train. Adam and his younger sister, Helen, would often go horseback riding while visiting with their bubbe and zayde.

Twelve days before turning 13, on Oct. 15, 1943, Adam was killed by a Nazi bullet while walking with a friend in a concentration camp. He never made it to his bar mitzvah.

I learned about Adam by reading about another Jewish boy, Daniel Pyser of Owings Mills, Md., who decided a few years ago to honor Adam during his own bar mitzvah.

With the encouragement of his parents, Daniel participated in a program called Remember Us, which connects bar and bat Mitzvah kids to children who died in the Holocaust. Typically, this means prominently featuring the name of the victim in the invitation and ceremony. But the program encourages kids to go further and put their own stamp on honoring their Holocaust “twin.”

Daniel was one of those who went further. He wanted to know as much as possible about Adam. So he contacted the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum to try to locate surviving family members. After many back-and-forth letters and phone calls, he hit the jackpot when Judy Finkelstein, the wife of the son of Adam’s surviving sister, Helen, contacted him.

Eventually, Daniel was able to contact Helen, which helped him get more information about Adam, including some family pictures. At his bar mitzvah, Daniel displayed on the bimah a picture of Adam and Helen next to a yahrzeit candle, and he led Kaddish in his memory. His speech, which he reprinted in the program, spoke about his journey of discovering Adam and his story.

At his party, near the end of the candle lighting ceremony and in front of hundreds of guests, Daniel spoke these words: “This last candle is a special one. It is in honor of Adam Ungar, a Polish boy who was not able to have the privilege of becoming a bar mitzvah. He was born on Oct. 27, 1930, and was killed not even 13 years later, on Oct. 15, 1943, during the Holocaust. This candle and this day are dedicated to him and in his memory.”

According to Samara Hutman, executive director of Remember Us, there are hundreds of similar stories of bar and bat mitzvah kids honoring young Holocaust victims. “Each one is more emotional than the next,” she told me over lunch recently.

Hutman, who lives in Santa Monica, has been running the national program of Remember Us since last July, overseeing the Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project and the more recent Righteous Conversations Project, which builds on the former by connecting teenage kids to actual Holocaust survivors. Don’t be fooled by the name, though: Righteous Conversations is aiming for a lot more than “conversation.”

Teens are encouraged to work with Holocaust mentors to come up with ideas that “address the needs of today’s world.” One of the first ideas to come out of the pilot program, which kicked off this year at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, is a series of powerful public service announcements, which the students have produced and made available to a number of different charities.

The two programs have an eerie symmetry. One honors teenage victims of the Holocaust; the other honors teenage survivors of the Holocaust who are now in their twilight years. It’s as if the survivors of the Righteous Conversations Project were saying to the kids of the Bnai Mitzvah Project, “Here’s what those kids might have looked like had they survived.”

Hutman has a special place in her heart for the Righteous Conversations program, maybe because she knows all too well that time is running out on this last generation of survivors. She quotes her mentor, Holocaust scholar professor Michael Berenbaum: “We are in a transition point between lived memory and historical memory.”

As we approach this transition, the challenge for the Jewish community will be to find ways to bring to life this historical memory. Cold numbers, no matter how big and dramatic, leave the memory numb and unfocused.

Until we see real faces and real stories — just like the stories this paper covers in its Survivors series — the horror of 6 million dead doesn’t really come to life.

What Remember Us is doing is taking these faces and stories and making them deeply personal. They’re marrying our horror stories from the past with our ideal stories from the present — and wrapping them both in the intimacy of communal ritual.

In the future, we might not see better carriers of Holocaust memory than bar mitzvah kids like Daniel Pyser honoring forgotten children like Adam Ungar. By “inviting” these kids to a life cycle event and reminding us that they had names and lives, that they loved to ski and play piano and hang out with their bubbes and zaydes, they’re breathing life into their deaths and adding presence to their absence.

One thing we know for sure: Even if every bar and bat mitzvah kid in America were to honor a victim, we’d never run out of names.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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