Seventy-four years ago this week, the Elbaum family, who had fled Poland after the Nazis invaded 1939, were waiting in a long line at the U.S. Customs office in San Francisco. Judith, 2, the youngest of the family, hopped up on a piece of luggage and belted out a song she learned aboard a freighter as her family traveled across the Pacific.
“I sang ‘God Bless America,’ said Judy Elbaum Schumer, now the chairperson of the Nevada Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust. Her performance was a hit. “The customs officer said ‘welcome to America!’ and waved us through.”
Schumer’s parents and older sister survived the Holocaust, the systematic murders of European Jews by the Nazis, by leaving Poland and going to Lithuania. There, they got a visa from a Japanese diplomat and eventually made it to Singapore, Japan, and finally, to the U.S.
A diplomat’s courage
The Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, defied his government by issuing 1,600 family visas, which allowed about 6,000 Jews to escape the Nazi death camps. When Sugihara had to leave Lithuania, he gave his official stamps and documents to other refugees, encouraging them to forge his name on more visas, allowing even more souls to escape the coming Holocaust.
“Today, there are about 45,000 descendants of those families, including me,” said Schumer. “That shows you what a difference one person can make.”
“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”– the Talmud, the book of Jewish law.
The Holocaust did not begin at the gates of Auschwitz or even with the rise of Hitler. It sprouted like a toxic weed from centuries of anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance. It was born in hate and encouraged by those who fanned the flames of prejudice. It was allowed to happen because multitudes understood the horror and yet did nothing to help.
‘How did you survive?’
Others, like Sugihara, took action – at the risk of their lives – to help Jews and other “undesirables” that the Nazis had marked for extermination. In Israel, they are honored as “Righteous Among the Nations.” In Reno, some of those rescuers are the focus of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Days.
The Northwest Reno Library, 2325 Robb Drive, is hosting “How Did You Survive?,” a Holocaust exhibit depicting 50 stories of survival, which runs through May 31. The library also is presenting speakers, including Schumer, throughout the month. The Atlantis Resort Spa on April 28 will host Robert Braun, author of “Protectors of Pluralism: Religious Minorities and the Rescue of the Jews in the Low Countries During the Holocaust.” Braun, a University of California, Berkeley professor, set out to determine why some communities protect victims of mass persecution while others do not. He argues that local minorities are more likely to save persecuted groups from purification campaigns.
Registration/RSVP at: https://tinyurl.com/2rmrb92x
‘How does genocide begin?‘
Carla Trounson, curator of the Shia Szrut Holocaust Memorial Collection at the Northwest Library, said the current exhibit and other events are aimed at educating people about the Holocaust, the industrial-scale murders committed by the Nazis in World War II. Trounson noted that although the slogan “never again” is often heard, genocides continued long after the world war ended.
“When does genocide begin and why do ordinary people go along?” Trounson asked in a recent lecture at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Reno. “I still grapple with the phrase ‘never again,’ what does that mean when there are so many (subsequent) genocides?”
Trounson noted that government-sanctioned mass murders continued after 1945, including in Cambodia, Slovenia, Darfur, and, most recently, in Ukraine. “One of the goals of our collection exhibition and displays is not only to teach and draw awareness to the Holocaust, but also to develop critical thinking skills so that people stop ‘otherizing’ people and learn empathy and perhaps realize the Holocaust didn’t begin at the gas chambers,” she said. “… Our Holocaust programs encourage the thoughtful exchange of ideas.”
“The Holocaust collection embodies inclusiveness. The purpose is to educate people about the Shoah, to teach respect for human dignity, as well as to value cultural and ethnic differences. To remind a broad spectrum of people they have choices, and by exploring our materials they can become cognizant of their own agency: to be a bystander, rescuer, or become a perpetrator.” – Carla Trounson, Shia Szrut Holocaust Memorial Collection.
Schumer, who told her family’s survival story in the book, “Esther’s Journey A Holocaust Memoir,” said that it’s important that people understand what happened during that dark time. She noted that the roots of the Holocaust haven’t gone away. Anti-Semitism, racism and White supremacy remain sicknesses that infect society.
The past is prologue
The public’s memory of what happened in the death camps apparently is fading. A national survey conducted in 2020, and reported in the Reno News & Review, concluded that In Nevada, 54% of the survey respondents did not know 6 million Jewish people died and 43% could not name even one of the 40,000 camps and ghettos that were part of the Nazis’ imprisonment and extermination system. In addition, 32% of Silver State respondents didn’t know the event was associated with World War II.
Schumer said that Sugihara and the hundreds of other ordinary people who risked everything to shelter and smuggle Jews to safety must be celebrated and emulated. The past informs the present.
“How Did You Survive?” is sponsored by the Nevada Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust. It was co-created by Esther Toporek Finder, president of Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, and Heidi Sarno Straus, chair, Holocaust Education, Jewish Nevada. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Northwest Reno Library has been hosting special events, including story times, film screenings, and virtual reality tours of the Anne Frank House.
Schumer, who was born in Singapore after her parents and older sister fled Poland, grew up listening to stories about the war and the Nazi terror. Her father, Moish, was a journalist and understood that once the Nazis controlled the countries they occupied, the extermination of Jews would soon follow. He went to Lithuania and then sent for his family in Warsaw.
“Like the Ukrainians are doing today, my mother took her bundle and held my sister’s hand, locked her door and left, not knowing where she was going to go or what would be happening to her and her family,” Schumer said. “For six weeks she made her way through territory occupied by Nazi soldiers, and then Russian soldiers and then crossed the border where there were Lithuanian soldiers… There were times when she should have been shot, but she made it.”
The stories of her family’s survival were “part of our dinner table, part of my growing up… My parents never wanted us to forget what happened and how many of our aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, and friends and friends of friends were murdered.”
When Schumer grew up, she understood she had an obligation to bear witness and oppose those who claim the Holocaust didn’t happen or is exaggerated. “We have to educate and we have to tell the story,” she said.
“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” — Heinrich Heine, German poet.
Upcoming programs at the Northwest Library include a presentation on Sunday, April 23 at 1 p.m. about Critical Race Theory, which is taught in some graduate schools, but has become a catch-all phrase heard at school board meetings when speakers want to regulate the teaching of American history. Trounson said her experience talking to folks at the library exhibit shows that more education is needed and that Holocaust deniers are among us. She noted that some people want to remove Holocaust books, including “Maus” and the “Diary of Anne Frank,” from schools and libraries. They don’t want the history told.
“There are some people who come in to the library and they talk about the collection in disparaging ways,” Trounson noted. “So there is plenty of work still to do.”