Three generations mourn, remember and bear witness

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“Our duty is to carry the stories of the Shoah from generation to generation,” said Rabbi Chai Levy, assistant rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Levy was speaking before 325 people at a Marin community Yom HaShoah VeHaGevurah commemoration Sunday, April 15 inside the sanctuary of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. “We mourn and remember and must bear witness.”

In the past, participants chose from a variety of presentations in the classrooms on the Osher Marin JCC campus, then gathered briefly inside the synagogue. This year, organizers, especially the survivors, structured the evening in one sacred space. There, they focused on sharing narratives from the immediate generations directly affected by the Holocaust, interspersing testimonials with poetry, music and prayers.

Eva Orbuch, a 17-year-old high school senior at Marin Academy and granddaughter of survivor Sonia Orbuch, delivered the evening’s most powerful stories as she shared lessons she learned from her grandmother, who fought with Jewish partisans in Europe.

“I realized while studying for my bat mitzvah that I will never truly understand what my grandmother and millions of others lived through,” said Orbuch, who will attend Stanford in the fall.

“But lately I’ve compared myself to her, since she was about the same age then as I am now,” she continued. “There were many similarities. Both of us were discovering romance and overcoming our shyness. But we have our differences: She was carrying hand grenades on missions, and I am fretting over college choices.”

Orbuch learned the intricacies of her grandmother’s stories — and all the similarities and differences between them — through weekly Shabbat meals at which ” a new piece of her history would come pouring out,” Orbuch said.

The pieces that resonated most with Orbuch were the tales that inspired her to fight for justice. One was of her grandmother and three family members huddling in a Ukrainian forest deep in winter with Ukrainian nationalists who were rabid Nazi sympathizers constantly nearby. But a Ukrainian peasant risked his life to feed the four Jewish strangers potatoes and vodka.

Shortly afterward, her grandmother joined the Jewish Partisans, a group of more than 30,000. “As a teenager, I learned that there were Jews who fought back. My all-time favorite quote from my grandmother is, ‘From all sides there was shooting. But I didn’t worry about getting killed. If I was going to die, it was as a fighter — not as a Jew.’

“She was saying that by becoming a resistance fighter she had stood up to the oppressors.”

Orbuch is proudly guided by her grandmother’s past, to the point that she recently organized a forum at her school featuring Eltayeb Ibrahim, who survived the genocide in Darfur.

“As this man, Ibrahim, spoke, I could feel his desperate pleas for help, and I felt this tremendous connection to him,” Orbuch recalled. “That moment is when I realized that suffering cannot be compared, only shared.”

Orbuch quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. and said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Then she added, “We owe it to our relatives to speak out against injustice. I can draw from the example of the strongest woman I know: my grandmother.”

Prior to Orbuch, two speakers, Esther Rosha-Stadler, a child of two survivors, and Paul Schwarzbart, a Shoah survivor, shared their equally

powerful recollections.

Rosha-Stadler, who grew up in San Francisco with her parents, Abraham and Regina Lenczer, talked publicly about her history for the first time. Amid the underlying sadness, loss, anger and a deep sense of mistrust, she also felt tremendous joy and celebration as a child of survivors.

For 30 years, she locked away the memories and guilt of her parents’ horrific experiences and how she could never measure up to that past. That changed when she attended a Shabbaton sponsored by Generation to Generation, a group for children of Holocaust survivors, where she recognized, “I was not alone. I realized then that I, too, lost my family. And now I grieve for my losses.”

Schwarzbart, a retired professor of French in the University of California system who was hidden in a Catholic boys’ school in the mountains of Belgium and later captured his stories in his memoir “Breaking the Silence,” spoke about how his mother’s acts of bravery motivated him to become a better person and celebrate life.

“She taught me courage and to stand up for myself,” said Schwarzbart, who was unaware at the time that there were any other Jewish boys in the school. He learned as an adult that, of the 125 students, nearly 90 were Jewish.

“To save my life, she turned me over to a complete stranger in 1943,” he said. “She knew it would be better than if I’d stayed with her. So I pay tribute to all those, like my mother, who said no to dying and yes to living.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.