Humanity in the Face of Adversity: What I Learned from a Holocaust Survivor

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Jewish American Heritage Month this May offers us an opportunity to reflect on the rich history and contributions of Jewish Americans. This year, Macmillan Learning was privileged to host a webinar featuring Holocaust survivor, Gary Eichenwald, who shared an experience that was both a reminder of the dark chapters in history and a testament to the resilience, compassion and humanity that can emerge even in the face of unimaginable adversity. Here are some of the things we learned from him during the moving hour-long discussion.

The Power of Resilience:
One of the most striking aspects of the story of Gary and his family was their incredible resilience. Despite facing the horrors of the Holocaust, they managed to find strength within themselves to survive and rebuild their lives. From escaping Germany to seeking refuge in the Netherlands and living in hiding, his ability to maintain strength and dignity serves as a powerful reminder of the human spirit's capacity to overcome adversity. Gary and his family hid with a Dutch farmer, Hendrick Bloem, who had nine children. Initially, they worked on the farm, posing as cousins. However, when the danger increased, they moved to a shack in the woods. Their journey is a powerful reminder of the human ability to endure even the most devastating circumstances.

Compassion in Crisis:
Throughout the webinar, Gary shared instances of compassion and kindness that he experienced, even in the darkest times. Gary recounted stories of small acts of kindness that provided immense comfort and hope. For instance, when his family was hiding with the Bloem family, they were treated with great care and respect and provided two meals a day. These moments of compassion not only provided immediate relief but also restored faith in humanity.

The Courage to be Brave:
When we think of bravery during the Holocaust, we think of the many Jewish victims who were forced to make life or death decisions -- from whether to send their children away, to who they should trust and where they should go. Yet it’s also important to remember and honor those who were not Jewish, but made hard and courageous choices that ultimately saved lives.

While Oskar Schindler may be one of the most well-known, there were many others whose bravery deserves recognition. Among them are Polish social worker Irena Sendler, who saved about 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto; Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, who issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees, allowing them to escape through Japan. These and many other persons just like Hendrick Bloem are among the 27,000 recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” and have their names enshrined in Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, for their bravery throughout the Holocaust, risking not just their own lives but the lives of their families.

The Importance of Memory:
Gary emphasized the critical importance of remembering and sharing stories like his, as well as the history of the Holocaust. His detailed recollections of Kristallnacht, when Nazi soldiers and thugs broke into and vandalized his grandmother's textile store and severely beat his grandfather, were reminders that the Holocaust didn’t begin with concentration camps. Rather, it began by making an “other” of the Jewish community. His and his family's experiences during the war highlight the importance of remembrance and the need to educate future generations to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

By keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, we honor those who perished and ensure that the lessons learned from this dark period are not forgotten. This act of remembrance is a call to action to stand against hatred and bigotry in all forms. It’s common to hear “never forget” within the Jewish community, and for good reason. Giving memory to these tragic events helps ensure they are not forgotten.

Hope and Renewal
Amidst the stories of suffering, there were also stories of hope and renewal. Gary spoke about rebuilding his life after the Holocaust, and the importance of finding meaning and purpose. His journey from a war-torn Europe to starting a new life in the United States is a testament to the possibility of renewal and growth even after profound trauma. This resilience and hope are crucial for moving forward and building a better future.

The insights gained from Gary’s story are not just historical; they offer valuable lessons for our present and future. In a world still grappling with hatred and division, the experiences of Holocaust survivors like Gary teach us the importance of empathy, understanding and standing up against injustice. Sadly, antisemitism is not a relic of the past; it remains a significant issue in many parts of the world. This speaks to the ongoing importance of individuals and communities standing up against all forms of bigotry and speaking out against hate speech.

By remembering the past and educating future generations, we can foster a more compassionate and understanding world. As we commemorate Jewish American Heritage Month, we should not forget the lessons from Gary, and should strive to build a world where our humanity triumphs. You can read more about Gary’s story and the Bloem family.