Optimism and uncertainty made July visit to Israel: Sunny, with a Chance of Rockets

by | Sep 5, 2014 | Other News

Elena Baum, Janice Engel, Mickey Held and Deb Segaloff in Israel.

The Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater accepted an invitation to present its innovative original program, What We Carry, at the 9th International Conference on Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, July 7–10, 2014.

The start of the conference coincided with the start of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s defensive military action against terrorist attacks from Gaza.

Despite the uncertainty of their safety, evacuations to bomb shelters, and the very-real threat of terrorist attacks, the four-woman team representing the Commission—Mickey Held, Deb Segaloff, Janice Engel, and Elena Barr Baum—remained in Israel for the duration of the conference.

In the weeks following their return, the women shared their experiences and observations with the community. Segaloff spoke at the Tidewater Stand Strong for Israel gathering on July 24, an email from Engel was reprinted as a UJFT blog post, Held contributed a blog and an article in the August 11 Jewish News, and Baum wrote a six part blog for JewishVA.org. The following article includes excerpts from Baum’s series, Sunny with a Chance of Rockets.

by Elena Barr Baum

We were a team of four: Mickey Held, What We Carry chair, Deb Segaloff, past Holocaust Commission chair, Janice Engel, one of the co-creators of the What We Carry films and program, and me, Elena Baum, Holocaust Commission director.

The Holocaust Commission was chosen to present What We Carry (WWC) as one of 38 workshops at this international conference, with more than 450 attendees from 50 countries. Just two days after online registration opened, the WWC session was FULL! This was quite a boost… the Tidewater delegation had worked for months fine-tuning their presentation, which would take place on Thursday afternoon of the conference, the day devoted to the third and fourth generations.

The Conference opened with a networking dinner and addresses from conference director, Ephraim Kaye, and Yad Vashem chairman and Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, himself a Polish survivor of Buchenwald. We were gathered, packed in really, in the Valley of the Communities, an area dug into the mountain with sheer walls over 40 feet high inscribed with the names of communities who lost Jews in the Holocaust.

Day One was devoted to First and Second Generation, Telling the Story. The day was a blockbuster, every speaker a powerful one. Among others, we heard from Serge Klarsfeld, the French survivor and “Nazi Hunter” who was behind the capture and trial of “the Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie; and Historian Yehuda Bauer, a Czech survivor and renowned scholar who has authored literally dozens of books about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Bauer had all 400+ people in the lecture hall enthralled with his discussion of the nuances between stories, testimonies, and documents, and how they each play a role in recording history. He is known for his story telling and has long professed that it is not enough to know the dates and facts of an event: “We must know the stories of individuals. We must study their moral dilemmas.”

Day Two focused on The Second and Third Generation: Finding Meaning in the Story. After an interesting panel discussion about the seminal film Shoah by Claude Lanzman, we heard from Dr. Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

Goldhagen brought to light many previously unexplained thoughts on common theories that average Germans and German soldiers were “just following orders” or “unable to make different choices.” He cited that while it was common knowledge that the Germans reintroduced slavery to the European continent, too often the testimony of survivors and victims about how they were treated by “ordinary Germans” was neglected or even ridiculed, because it flew in the face of what the scholars were saying about the Nazi culture.

While I was told later by a staff member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that some historians are skeptical of his research, I must say that it was one of the most thought-provoking lectures I have heard on the Holocaust. That’s the thing about this subject—there is always more to learn, more angles to investigate.

Thursday brought The Third and Fourth Generation: The Relevance of the Story. This is where the rubber meets the road. How do you make the Holocaust important to the “digital natives” growing up today, who see the 20th century as ancient history? Kids who will never meet a survivor, or hear an eyewitness account of the Holocaust?

All four of us had spent the previous two days talking up our program with colleagues and people we were meeting throughout the conference. Even though our session was “sold out,” we told lots of new contacts we’d met to come anyway!

Among the 40+ people in our workshop, 13 countries were represented. Everyone truly appreciated that we had brought two of our suitcases the thousands of miles, and displayed them as we do in schools and other venues. In addition to showing the trailer of the What We Carry films we talked about the importance of preserving individual stories in this dynamic way, in order for them to resonate with people who will not have an opportunity to meet survivors in person.

We shared our successes with the program, which has been presented to more than 14,000 people in its first two and a half years, with many repeat presentations. We gave a “mini-presentation” of one of our survivors’ story, so those assembled could understand how a docent connected the films to the suitcases seamlessly.

The response was wonderful, from professionals associated with Yad Vashem, who spoke with Janice about possibly creating some sort of partnership, to those from around the U.S. and other countries. We were invited, SERIOUSLY, to come present in Salonika, Greece, and are working on the possibility of bringing What We Carry to a variety of locations from New Jersey to Namibia.

It seemed as soon as we began our presentation, it was time to pack up, as the conference only had two more sessions. The one that followed ours brought the entire cohort back together again for “the voices of the fourth generation.” What a powerful way to wrap up the week! Six young people from different countries shared with the delegates why Holocaust education was important to them, and what motivates them to promote it in their countries. I looked at these young adults with pride in their purpose.

Even conference director Ephraim Kaye got a little emotional when thanking them for sharing their experiences and aspirations. But before the emotions had a chance to die down, we were treated to another profoundly emotive experience, as 11 high school students from Ashdod, which had been under heavy rocket fire the previous few days, shared their program called Mu-Zika. For about 20 minutes we watched as these young musicians performed their own compositions based on the poetry of several Holocaust survivors. They interpreted the voice of the first generation through the fourth generation’s lens.

Their statements and performances validated that the work we do DOES have an effect. The memories of the Holocaust do not have to fade as the generation who lived through it leaves us. These young people are capable of inspiring work based on the lives and experiences of their forbears, whether they are Israeli or Chinese. With the right education and understanding, they can promote attitudes and actions that bring us together in our common humanity, rather than separate us by any differences we may see, or simply perceive.

The conference was less than an hour from ending, and the sirens went off! As we calmly filed out of our rows and headed down the stairs, a loud “BOOM” could be heard over the sirens. When someone asked what it was, an Israeli in the crowd responded, “That was the Iron Dome.” “You mean it just took out a rocket, and we could HEAR it?” “Yes,” came the almost nonchalant reply.

Not having a true common language among the 50 nations represented, the most obvious celebratory song emerged from the group. The center of the throng joined hands and “Hava Nagila,” began to pulse up through the crowd. Tense faces turned to smiles as instead of wondering if they should call their loved ones from these moments in limbo, people reached for their phones instead to record this moment.

The Israeli people showed me a lot on this trip. While we foreigners were out of our element and in a stressful situation, imagine what our conference organizers and local hosts were going through. Their homes were in harm’s way; their loved ones were being called up into their reserve units daily; and yet they went out of their way to make sure we, the conference participants, had a wonderful experience. They did not let the potential chaos in their own personal lives alter their commitment to the mission of Yad Vashem, and the cause of Holocaust education. I cannot commend them highly enough.

Visit JewishVA.org and click on the Blog heading to read Sunny with a Chance of Rockets in its entirety, as well as Mickey Held and Janice Engel’s blogs. For more information about What We Carry, and the mission of the Holocaust Commission, visit JewishVA.org/Holocaust-Commission.