The following is the speech I delivered at John Carroll University’s first public Holocaust Remembrance Day event:
Cleveland Jewish News, “John Carroll honors Holocaust survivors, victims” – http://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/news/local/article_0b16fcdc-a21f-11e2-8cb4-0019bb2963f4.html
Fox 8 News coverage – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvsyU8aHl8Y
Never again. For many Holocaust survivors around the world, these two words evoke more pain and heartbreak than most experience over the course of a lifetime. But these words have also become a steely resolve and a symbol of hope.
In 1933, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany. Shortly thereafter, German Jews and other minorities began to experience state-sanctioned discrimination, persecution, loss of property, and nation-wide blame for all of Germany’s economic woes. By September of 1939, on the eve of World War II, minorities living in Nazi controlled areas found themselves being imprisoned, starved, forced to perform hard labor, and murdered by the dozens, or even hundreds at a time. By January of 1942, Hitler’s infamous final solution to the Jewish problem was implemented, which led to the outright massacre of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. By the war’s end, over six million Jews, as well as five million other minorities, were brutally and senselessly annihilated. Mothers and fathers were taken from their children. Brothers and sisters were forced to say goodbye far too soon. It was one of the darkest times in human history.
Around the time Hitler came to power, a man by the name of Isaac Mordechai was 22 years old, working on a family farm in Ukraine, and living a normal life. Then all of that suddenly and dramatically changed. His entire family, including his parents and six brothers were forcibly placed in a Jewish ghetto by the Nazi government. Conditions there were brutal. No member of the ghetto was ever allowed to leave. Eventually, Jews from the ghettos were shipped to concentration camps, and Isaac Mordechai was sent to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. Isaac Mordechai was forced, like his fellow inmates, to perform hours of backbreaking labor each day while being forced to endure malnutrition, overcrowding, and constant physical, mental, and emotional abuse from Nazi guards. Between 1940 and 1942, an average inmate of the camp weighed roughly 88 pounds. Prisoners were forced to carry blocks of stone weighing as much as 110 pounds up a large staircase, one stone after another. This led to injury and mortality rates so high that the area of the camp gained the nickname, “Stairs of Death.” Those who survived this brutal ordeal would often be placed in a line at the edge of a cliff at gunpoint, and each would be given the option of being shot, or pushing the prisoner in front of them off of the cliff to their death. Other methods of extermination included ice-cold showers which led to hypothermia, mass shootings, horrifying medical experiments, starvation, electrocution, drowning, and hanging. By the time the camp was liberated by American soldiers on May 5th, 1945, approximately 200,000 inmates had lost their lives, with some estimates ranging as high as 320,000. Out of Isaac Mordechai’s six brothers, only two survived.
After being liberated, Isaac Mordechai went back to living in Ukraine until 1979, when he immigrated to the United States. When he arrived, his family members who came with him began joyfully embracing his other family members who had come to America years earlier. Isaac Mordechai, however, chose to embrace the doorman of the facility he had just arrived in. When his family members asked him why he was hugging this stranger, Isaac Mordechai told them that while he may not have been the man’s blood relative, as far as he was concerned, all Americans were his family members now because of the gratitude he still harbored towards the country who liberated him and his surviving family members from the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, I am proud to call Isaac Mordechai, of blessed memory, my grandfather.
While the horrors of the Holocaust cannot and should not ever be forgotten, so too must we not dwell too much on the past. Years later, as Isaac Mordechai’s proud grandson, I have been given the honor and privilege of starting a chapter of Cleveland Hillel, here at John Carroll University. The staff, both at the Cleveland Hillel Foundation and the university, have been nothing but supportive and enthusiastic of bringing the organization to campus. Today, we are all here to remember and honor the countless innocent lives lost to a brutal regime, but we also are here to celebrate the eventual triumph of good over evil. In Hebrew, there is a common phrase shared by Jews all around the world: “Am Yisrael Chai.” In English, it means “The nation of Israel still lives And now I am extremely grateful to say that this is true at John Carroll University. My experiences here with Jewish and non-Jewish students alike have certainly helped to enrich my college experience, and it is my sincere hope that the presence of Hillel at this welcoming university will help to enrich the cultural, religious, and educational experiences of all other students as well. From heartbreak to healing. From despair to prosperity. From unbearable pain to unwavering hope. From a world brought to its knees through global war to a worldwide dream of mutual tolerance, understanding, and peace. This is the lesson of the Holocaust, and it is one that we must never forget.
(I kindly ask that you please do not publish/use any of my speech without my consent)