By Allan Chernoff
“Mit a harts ful mit tsar”— “With my heart full of sadness”— began Zalman Mlotek’s eulogy to a crowd of more than 600 mourners. The artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene was praising a great supporter of Yiddish theater and culture, an American with Eastern European roots who had emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust to make a huge success of himself, excelling in his profession while devoting himself to educating children and adults about the Shoah that had decimated each branch of his family tree.
The decedent, though, was not another octogenarian Holocaust survivor. No, tragically he was a child of survivors, a leading voice of the “Second Generation.” Five weeks ago — on Purim of all days — which is supposed to be one of the happiest dates on the Jewish calendar, Dr. Harry “Hesh” Romanowitz of Stamford suffered a stroke. Three days later he died at age 63.
In spite of the shortness of his years, “Hesh”, as his friends and family called him, left behind an important lesson for us all, particularly as we recently commemorated Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day: having suffered the unspeakable losses of the Holocaust our collective responsibility and strength is in teaching and learning this tragic history, while still celebrating life.
Dr. Romanowitz, a renowned physician who served as pediatrician-in-chief at Stamford Hospital for two decades and sat on the faculties of Yale University School of Medicine and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, championed after-hours care in Stamford and served as a precision mohel, performing the ancient Jewish ritual of brit milah, circumcision. He was engaged in numerous civic organizations devoted to children’s health, education, literacy, advocacy and prevention of birth defects. All these causes were meaningful to him.
But it was Holocaust education and celebrating the Eastern European culture of his parents and grandparents that held a particularly special place for Hesh. For a decade he was chair of Stamford’s Holocaust Memorial Committee, which educates the community, organizes annual commemorations, and promotes and sponsors participation in the March of the Living, the annual educational program that brings students from around the world to Poland to study the history of the Holocaust and origins of bigotry, intolerance and hatred. Hesh was responsible for dozens of New England teenagers traveling on this life-changing program and participated twice himself.
He instructed parents and educators how to teach their children about the Shoah. Hesh’s teachings, though, focused not only on the tragedy of the Shoah, but also on the wonderful culture of Eastern European Jewry, through courses he gave in Yiddish language and Jewish music. Just this past December, he organized a major concert of Yiddish and Klezmer music at Stamford’s Temple Beth El – “My Yiddishe Chanukah,”- that brought together stars of the Yiddish stage, like Zalmen Mlotek, as well as clergy from across the community.
Hesh did not know how short his days would be, but his actions reflected the urgency of someone who recognizes the limited time we all have on earth.
Fact is, the impending, inevitable date when all Shoah survivors are gone is approaching steadily, as a clock whose ticking grows louder each Yom Hashoah. The responsibility to ensure remembrance increasingly appears to rest upon the Second Generation, those who heard their parents’ stories of survival firsthand, who were imbued with the history from birth. But as we see, their numbers, sadly, also are diminishing.
It’s true that the Second Generation, and now the Third Generation, have a special duty – the burden of history, as one might call it. But all of us — Jews and non-Jews alike — share the need to be educated, to learn the facts of the Shoah, to comprehend the evil of which man is capable, and to ensure that the world learns from history so that our pledge of “Never Again” is a statement of fact, not of hope. On Yom Hashoah each year we say “Remember!” — in Yiddish, “Gedenk!” Remembrance is a responsibility we all bear.
Allan Chernoff is a former CNN senior correspondent in New York. His reporting has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Forward, Money and New York Magazine, among other publications and websites. His book about survivors from the Polish town of Tomaszow-Mazowiecki, The Tailors of Tomaszow, is soon to be published by Texas Tech University Press.
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