Holocaust remembrance: “Go live for us”

By Bill Simons

It is Sunday, May 5 – 27 Nisan 5784 on the Hebrew calendar – and I am at Temple Emanu-El, located at 1 East 65th St., on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to observe Yom Hashoah. One of the largest synagogues in the world, the main sanctuary of this venerable Reform temple can accommodate 2,500 people and, by 4 pm on this day, the seats are largely filled. Temple Emanu-El is the host venue for the Annual Gathering of Remembrance sponsored by The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I come in reverent solidarity with fellow Jews. At a time of rising global and American antisemitism, bomb threats are made against several New York City synagogues on this very weekend and anti-Israel chants continue to emanate from nearby Manhattan college campuses. 

My role as a union delegate to a New York State United Teachers convention prompted my presence in New York City, but I attended Temple Emanu-El as witness to Yom Hashoah and as a journalist. Jeff Simmons – the very able managing director of Anat Gerstein – handled communications for the event, and he graciously escorted me to seating directly behind program speakers and Holocaust survivors. Subsequently, Jeff sent me photos of the speakers and a video recording, accessible here, of the 141-minute program. The Gathering of Remembrance included remarks by several speakers, the testament of Holocaust survivors, the lighting of six candles, prayer and music by Cantor Joseph Malovany and HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir that pierced the soul. 

In the Yom Hashoah invocation, Joshua Davidson, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, reflected on the open wounds of the past year – the October 7 massacre in southern Israel, the brutal ongoing confinement of Jewish hostages and the resurgent antisemitism unleashed by Hamas. “Campus cries for Jews to go back to Poland,” he asserted, “are not protests against Israel’s policies; they are protests against Israel’s existence.” Decrying the false and rampant Holocaust inversion, Rabbi Davidson condemned “abuse of the Shoah itself as a rhetorical weapon against Jews and the Jewish state. We know what genocide is. We survived one.” Rabbi Davidson prayed that we “fulfill the divine call to service… and bring healing to this world.”

Drawing parallels to the present, other speakers noted that the murder of six million European Jews, one-third of our people, began with words and boycotts. Thus, it is our duty to remember and tell the story of the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust to inspire action so that the mistakes of the past not be repeated. We were charged to remember the admonition of Elie Wiesel: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future”

Several prominent Jewish American leaders spoke at the Gathering of Remembrance, amongst them Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking elected Jewish government official in American history. Many of his family members were murdered in the Shoah. Senator Schumer shared the story of his great-grandmother, who stood on her porch with 35 relatives and defied Nazi orders to gather in the town square. In retaliation, his great-grandmother and 35 relatives were shredded by Nazi machine gunfire on the porch of her home. Senator Schumer placed the generational trauma of the Shoah within the context of the October 7 massacre – the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust and the continuing ordeal of the hostages. He reaffirmed his commitment to fight antisemitism here and abroad by pledging “never again.”

One of the six aged Holocaust survivors to light a candle in memory of the six million Jewish lives snuffed out in the Shoah, Martin Bloch, pledged to continue to tell the story of the Shoah as long as he had breath. 

The grandson of a Holocaust survivors, Jordan Farkas related the story of his grandmother, Marguerite Berkowitz Farkas. On May 10, 1940, as Nazi bombs raked her Belgium community, 12-year-old Marguerite, along with her parents Jankiel and Rivka Berkowitz, older brother Abram and younger sister Eva, fled to France for refuge. But in October 1940, the Berkowitz family were carted off to a relocation site, enduring fetid conditions along with many other Jews. Then, in August 1942, 15-year-old Marguerite and her family were packed like animals into a boxcar destined for the Auschwitz death camp. 

The gas chamber and ovens awaited Jankiel and Rivka and several of their relatives, as it did so many other Jews. Miraculously, Abram survived Auschwitz. And members of the partisan resistance rescued Marguerite and Eva from Auschwitz, but their future was still fraught. 

For a time, the partisans moved the Berkowitz sisters from farmhouse to farmhouse of brave and compassionate Christian families who resisted Nazi dictates. As the Nazi pursuers pushed forward, the partisans instructed the girls that they must flee to safety and follow the North Star over many, many miles to safety in Switzerland. Remarkably, their relentless determination delivered Marguerite and Eva to the refuge of an aunt’s care in Switzerland. 
Before the irrevocable final separation from their daughters, Jankiel and Rivka told them, “Go live for us.” Those words became a sacred injunction for Marguerite, and she wrote a memoir titled “Go Live for Us.” Marguerite imparted her story to her own children, and then to Jordan and her other grandchildren. 

As a third-generation Holocaust survivor, Jordan has assumed Marguerite’s mission. Jordan asserted his commitment to make the Holocaust and Marguerite’s survival relevant and relatable to his own children, even as the Shoah grows chronologically more distant from the present, so that his children will teach their children about the meaning of Yom Hashoah – and that the story will resonate in all the generations to come. 

Marguerite not only lived, she thrived. Pharaohs, fuhrers and terrorists have and will come, but, for all Jews, it is our obligation in this generation and in the generations yet unborn to remember the words of the victims of the Shoah: “Go live for us.”