There was not a dry eye in the room, but the tears were not of sadness or suffering. Rather, they were of joy and optimism for a shared future. So moved by the scene, Frieda Kliger remarked: "My dreams have now come true." Frieda was one of some 80 Holocaust survivors who gathered this week at Yad Vashem for an event in appreciation for their dedicated service to Yad Vashem and to mark the Jewish New Year.
While each of these survivors has a unique story to tell, one purpose that binds them to one another and to Yad Vashem is that they all fill an important role by providing testimonies to groups participating in Holocaust commemorative and educational activities. Indeed, one of the most engaging and important elements of the dozens of international seminars and educational groups that pass through Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies doors every year are the face-to-face meetings with a Holocaust survivor. For many participants, this is their first opportunity to meet somebody who actually experienced the Shoah. "Meeting with survivors raises so many emotions and adds an element of understanding of what these people went through during the Holocaust," one student attending this New Years event remarked. "We get so much more out of the experience as a result of what they give, and we feel more committed to transmitting their message on to others."
During his address to the survivors at the New Year gathering, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev recalled a statement made by the late Prof. Israel Gutman: "The Holocaust refuses to become a chapter in history." Shalev stated: "The main reason for this, I believe, is due to your contribution in providing eyewitness testimony." He continued, "You declare to the world I was there, and here I am now!" Through testimonies and educational programs like those at Yad Vashem, the memory of the Holocaust refuses to be relegated to the pages of our history books.
Shela Altaraz, representing her fellow Holocaust survivors, spoke at the event about how, "for fifty years I kept silent. However, in the last several years, I have been sharing my story with groups here at Yad Vashem… and feel an important sense of shlichut (purpose)."
Perhaps this is what Frieda meant when she expressed that her dreams have now come true. Through the ongoing activities of Yad Vashem, her narrative and those of her fellow survivors will continue to live on in perpetuity.
Working at Yad Vashem, I have had many opportunities to meet and talk to survivors, but the gathering this week was one-of-a-kind, even though unfortunately fewer and fewer survivors are able to attend such events due to their advanced ages and dwindling numbers. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the event during a musical performance, I witnessed survivors, second and even third generations joined hands in song and dance. The same people who, had they lived their lives in sadness and despair, the world would have understood, have created reasons for joy, happiness and hope. Let that be their legacy.