Students gathered yesterday evening to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day with the testimony of Jake Geldwert, a Holocaust survivor. This Jewish holiday, also known as Yom Hashoah, which began last night and continues through sundown tonight, brings Jewish people all over the world together to remember the people killed during the Holocaust and its survivors.
Geldwert’s speech, a recount of his life from 1941-1945, was the centerpiece of the memorial ceremony, which also featured remarks by Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education, and Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Hillel, as well as a brief musical tribute by the Chai Notes and a chanting of the Hebrew Prayer for the Dead, “El Moleh Rachamim.”
Originally from a small town outside Auschwitz, Poland, Geldwert has resided for fifty years with his wife Jeannette, also a Holocaust survivor, in Ithaca, as active members of the Jewish community.
He vividly described his experiences, including when he was first taken from the small ghetto near his hometown in 1943.
“One Shabbos morning, it was a week after Purim It was almost 10 o’clock — I had to go to the outhouse, and on my way back from the outhouse some police came over,” said Geldwert. “So, I was in jail for a week and then they took me to a camp — just a work camp.”
Geldwert spoke of various events and ordeals he lived through as he was transported from labor camp to concentration camp, eventually ending up in a small town outside Buchenwald. He also explained that after the Americans liberated the workers, he and some companions who were temporarily living in a house abandoned by a Nazi stumbled upon some Jewish girls a few miles away in a Russian-controlled camp. Geldwert and the others rescued the girls, who had begged them to take them away from the Russians who were taking advantage of them, and brought them back to the house.
He met his wife Jeanette, who had been in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp through this excursion.
Geldwert briefly paused from his explanation of events to reflect on the “luck” which helped him to survive. When he was on a forced march from one camp to another with thousands of other Jewish people, “all of a sudden, an old lady puts a rutabaga in my hand. I thought it was Elijah.” According to Jewish folklore, Elijah is a prophet thought to continuously roam the Earth, assisting people in distress.
The memorial and Geldwert’s stories, affected several people, coming at a time when much of the world’s attention is focusing on other tragic events in the Middle East. Alluding to Israeli and Palestine, several speakers highlighted the need for Jewish people to actively work to prevent the Holocaust from happening again.
Rosenthal called on the audience members to “not only remember, but to live as Jews because the victims of the Holocaust were murdered because they were Jews.” Rosenthal stressed that the victims of the Holocaust “were not numbers. They were human beings.”
Geldwert also found it important to speak the names of all of the people he remembered — to remember them as people, or observe their “Yartzeit,” as it is called in the Jewish tradition.
Kramnick, who also referred to the strong connection between the Holocaust and the development of the Jewish state of Israel, framed his words around a piece of art he had recently seen at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, an artistic installation of a 13-second news reel film created by Israeli artist Boaz Arad, a part of the highly controversial exhibit “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” in which artists put modern twists on traditional artifacts from the Holocaust.
The film, constituting bits of Hitler’s voice re-engineered to say “Hello Jerusalem, I apologize” in Hebrew, is meant to invoke a curiosity in many viewers about what would happen to the identities of Jewish people if there was a suddenly apology for the Holocaust.
Speaking of the Jewish concept of “tikkun,” or repairing the world, Kramnick said that “the Holocaust does not and should not define the Jewish identity,” and that Jewish people should seek to look at the future, at the continuance of the Jewish people and traditions, while remembering the evils of the Holocaust.
Kramnick concluded that he “will not allow evil to define my Jewish identity.”
The solemn gathering of people, which listened attentively to Geldwert’s life stories, continued their observance with a candlelight vigil on Ho Plaza at 10 p.m., and Cornell’s commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurs every year on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, continues today on Ho Plaza. Throughout the day, 10,000 names of Holocaust victims will be read by students.
Archived article by Aliza Wasserman