When author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was recently asked if he feared future generations might forget the Holocaust once the last surviving witnesses had perished, he answered that he had quelled his anxiety over this problem with a simple dictum: “To listen to a witness,” he said, “is to become one.”
UCLA junior, Ashton Rosin is a living embodiment of that ideal. Quite literally, she is the director of UCLA Hillel’s Bearing Witness program, a two-month weekly workshop pairing students with Holocaust survivors for intimate discussion and reflection. Through her first workshop last year, Rosin found a friend in survivor Eva Brettler. But Rosin also wanted to go further and decided to bring the searing stories and historical significance illuminated in the workshop to a broader UCLA audience. The following spring, she inaugurated the university’s first-ever Yom HaShoah Week with a series of events addressing the Holocaust. She organized a film screening, panel discussion and a mid-campus Holocaust vigil to make the work more visible to the university’s non-Jewish population, and she personally reached out to disability-advocacy groups, the LGBT community and other organizations on campus for whom the notion of struggle and suffering would resonate.
“We really wanted to break out of the Jewish bubble,” Rosin said. “The Holocaust is not only about a specific group being targeted. It’s about the human condition.”
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Just 20, Rosin already has a history of delving into some of the most profound and complicated problems a human being can face. In high school, she was among 10 students selected by the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI) to spend a summer traveling through Israel with 10 Israeli Jews and 20 Israeli Arabs on what she described as a “peace program focused on dialogue.” The program had such an impact on her that the following year she became a JITLI counselor, helping to lead other, younger participants through the intense and sometimes thorny experience of meeting neighbors they might also consider adversaries. All the dialogue made a difference, she said.
“It is some form of progress, putting a face to that ‘other’ we like to talk about,” Rosin said. “At the end of the day, I am Jewish, but the widening of my perspective kind of puts me in the devil’s advocate position nowadays. In political discussions, I’m the one who tends to bring up this notion that you can’t just displace people on the other side, that they’re real people with real lives.”
The depth of Rosin’s empathy may be tied to the fact that she has endured considerable suffering herself. At 10, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable gastrointestinal autoimmune disease that forced her out of school for a year. Today, she still lives with chronic pain, goes to the doctor “all the time,” visits the hospital at least once or twice a week and maintains a strict gluten-free, fiber-free diet.
“It’s something that’s a part of my life every day,” she said. “Pain is a constant thing; my sense of normal. But if you looked at me from the outside, you’d never know something was going on on the inside. So I gained a greater understanding for human struggle, and what’s behind closed doors. And I’ve always thought to tap into what people are really going through because, for me, people don’t really understand unless they delve in.”
“Everybody has a story,” Rosin said. She is their witness.
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