Monday, October 3, 2011

That Time I Pretended I Was A Great Orator

Here’s the speech I gave yesterday at the Holocaust Yitzkor service.  My Dad was able to capture some of it on video via his iPhone so I’ll post that in the next few days.

“The Courage To Remember”

There are 350,000 survivors of the Holocaust alive today...

There are 350,000 experts who just want to be useful with the remainder of their lives. Please listen to the words and the echoes and the ghosts. And please teach this in your schools.

--Steven Spielberg, Academy Award acceptance speech

When I was 14, I was fortunate enough to be part of an innovative program in middle school which combined the English and Social studies curricula to focus on social injustice and tolerance education.  We spent an entire semester on the Holocaust.  It was a truly  eye-opening experience.  I was able to contribute more than most my age, as the semester culminated with a guest speaker, who happened to be my Grandmother, Renee Silverstein.  Up until that afternoon, I had always known my family was different.  I just hadn’t realized how vastly different. 

I grew up in a town with a very small Jewish population and only a handful of Jewish friends. Indeed, most of my peers did not know much about the Holocaust before we began this project.  As my Grandmother began to tell her story I watched as their eyes widened.  Before my class stood living history. My grandmother gave a human story to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  The hard part is putting faces to to names, and in some cases, numbers. She spoke of the six years spent in the ghetto and camps and the struggles that came from being the only survivor in her immediate family.  As I sat and listened, I realized that I, her eldest grandchild, had never heard the full story before.  It was then that the importance of what we had spent months studying became clear. 

We need to talk about these atrocities.  It is not enough to read about the Holocaust in a textbook.  We need to see the faces of those who have survived and hear their stories.  I watched my friends listening to my Grandmother with an intensity I had never seen before.  During those few short hours, she was changing their lives.  She was able to bring the yellow Jewish Star the Nazis forced her to wear and the few mementos that were left of her family to show the students.  The impact of what was said and seen that day was evident in the many letters my Grandmother received from the students.  They spoke of how much they admired her and appreciated her courage in telling her story.  I would like to share a letter from one of my non-Jewish classmates now:

Dear Mrs.. Silverstein,

As an eighth grader at Blue Mountain Middle School, I would like to thank you for attending the Machonis team tolerance day and telling your horrifying tale.  We all appreciate you coming, and I never realized how unfortunate people living in Poland were at that time.  When we were studying the Holocaust, we understood what people were going through by various projects.  We understood the horror.  Your story made us all realize if one person hates another person because of their race, such as Hitler, and if you have a lot of power bad things can happen.  It's kind of like dominos falling during the Holocaust. You had real courage to come and talk to us about your feelings and experience. It must have been really painful and we admire you for that.  Staff and students thank you again for coming here to tell your story and we shall never forget what has happened. As the children of the new millennium, we won't ever let this happen again. 

Sincerely,

Kristin

It is worth noting that Kristin is now a Middle School teacher.

The burden of teaching future generations lies with us.  Soon the last survivors will be gone. It is now our place to continue to uphold and honor the legacy of those who perished.  We need to take the time to listen to their stories, however painful it may be.  It will take patience and strength to educate those who do not know.  Everything I learned about strength, I learned from my Grandmother.  She is the strongest, most loving woman I know. She has taught me a great deal about the importance of family.  The simple act of being here today, coming together as a community to honor those who could not be with us, including my wonderful Grandfather, Edward Silverstein, is the first step.  We need to take upon ourselves to support and encourage programs such as these.  Here is my challenge to all of you, second and third generation survivors: Bring one friend or relative to next year’s service.  In taking this small step we can exponentially increase awareness.  [a]

As my Grandmother quoted Steven Spielberg  in 1998 while addressing my class that day "It is painful to remember, but is easy to forget."

Just picture me shaking at a podium and you’ll get the full effect. 

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