UNC Hillel normally reads the names of those who died in the Holocaust out loud in the Pit on Yom Hashoah. But this year, with the pandemic, the group wanted to use a new virtual format to emphasize reflection and remembrance.
On April 6, UNC Hillel featured three student speakers — Melanie Cohen, Jacob Gerardi and Benjamin Jaeger – who are all descendants of Holocaust survivors, in addition to a candle lighting, prayer and small-group reflections.
Yom Hashoah falls on day 27 of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, which honors the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, occurring on the eve of Passover in 1943, Abigail Adams, the Limmud Chair of UNC Hillel told The Daily Tar Heel.
“It’s not a religious holiday — it’s a historical one,” Adams said. “It’s more commemorating than celebrating.”
Adams said while the Reading of the Names focused on the magnitude of the Holocaust that, this year, their goal for the event was to focus on individual stories from UNC families and to allow space for quiet reflection.
At the event, Cohen, a sophomore studying biomedical engineering, shared the story of her grandmother, who survived the Holocaust while living in Poland.
"Because she was a baby during the war, she felt like she didn't remember a lot of what happened to her, and that really bothered her," Cohen said.
Cohen’s grandmother rarely talked about her experience to her children or Cohen's grandfather, she said.
Her grandmother's first memory of her experience was soldiers taking her father from their house under false pretenses and presumably shooting him in the woods, Cohen said. When her father did not come home, like so many others, her grandmother and great-grandmother went into hiding, Cohen said.
The family went into hiding in various places, and some of them eventually outlived the war to immigrate to America, she said.
Gerardi, a first-year studying anthropology, told the story of his grandfather’s first cousin, Mendel. Mendel was not only persecuted by Nazis, he was attacked by fellow Lithuanians, Gerardi said. After Lithuania was liberated, Mendel immigrated to Cuba and eventually the United States.
"Lithuania was one of the most deadly countries to be in the Holocaust," Gerardi said. "Estimates are between 95 percent and 98 percent of the Jews there were killed."
Jaeger, a sophomore studying contemporary European studies, told his grandmother’s story. One night, she and her sister removed the stars from their clothes and got on a train with their non-Jewish aunt, leaving home for the last time before the end of the war, he said. She tried not to ask questions or draw attention to herself at school, Jaeger said.
"They would forge ID cards for people on the run, including down British and American airmen and other Jews who would occasionally make discreet visits to their house," Jaeger said.
After the three speakers presented the history of their families, Rabbi Melissa B. Simon led a prayer and lighting of yahrzeit candles.
"In Judaism, we light candles for holidays like Shabbat and Hanukkah," Rabbi Simon said. "We also light yahrzeit, or memorial candles, to honor the death of a loved one. Tonight, we are going to light candles in honor of the memory of those murdered in the Holocaust."
The group was then split into breakout rooms for deeper conversation or silent reflection, followed by the playing of a video of Holocaust survivors and their descendants singing the song “Chai,” which means “life” in Hebrew.
Although Yom Hashoah is a Jewish commemoration, people of all backgrounds are invited to participate and remember, Dylan Maisonet, a member of UNC Hillel, told The Daily Tar Heel.
“As time goes on, the few survivors are dwindling,” Maisonet said. “We want to keep in touch with family members and our roots and never forget.”
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