We are at a turning point in Holocaust education, and not only because many survivors are no longer doing in-person events. What will it be like when there are no longer any Holocaust survivors left to share their stories in real time?
“No one / bears witness for the / witness,” writes Paul Celan in “Ashglory” (here translated by Pierre Joris). I returned to this poem again and again when, in 2017, I held the role of writing partner for the Sustaining Memories Project, a program created by the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program in partnership with the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University).
A story about shoes: It was Holocaust Education Week, 2019, and I accompanied Judy Cohen, the 91-year-old survivor whose memoir I was then immersed in — shifting passages, recasting sentences, checking dates and historical data — to a talk she was giving at York University.
In late 2014, the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program received an extremely important submission — a 250-page memoir written in Yiddish in 1944 by Pinchas Hirschprung, who would later become the Chief Rabbi of Montreal. Seventy years after it was written, this extraordinary piece of literature would embark on a new journey: the original manuscript was carefully translated and diligently researched to include historical and liturgical information and context, resulting in a beautiful new English edition titled The Vale of Tears. The book’s cover image was developed through a similar journey. The final image of a fragment of a parchment Torah scroll by celebrated photographer Yuri Dojc, who has documented a variety of found Holocaust objects in Eastern Slovakia, is a startling photograph titled “Torah Fragment.” This photo was taken in 2006 and published in 2011, along with many other images, in Last Folio, an installation, documentary and narrative. Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung’s memoir is like that last remaining fragment of the Torah scroll depicted on its cover. Although they destroyed his family, the Nazis could not destroy Rabbi Hirschprung’s essence, the essence of the Jewish people — our faith and determination to persevere. In 1944, when he wrote about his survival and escape from Europe, Rabbi Hirschprung started the task of documenting what was lost — family, friends, shtetl life and culture — and what remained — the spirit and strength of the Jewish people. Hirschprung persevered in his task of witnessing by having his work serialized and published in 1944 in Der Keneder Adler, the Yiddish daily newspaper in Montreal. As the war raged in Europe, the Jewish community in Montreal learned, in exceptional detail, of the odyssey Hirschprung had embarked on to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. Readers learned not only the extent of his suffering, but of his unwavering commitment to Judaism and the extraordinary depth of his scholarly knowledge of the Talmud and the Torah.Rabbi Hirschprung (centre) with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Eiger (left) and Rabbi Yechiel Menachem Singer (right). Poland, 1930s.In writing his story, Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung exemplifies the following quote from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” Hirschprung seems to have had an innate sense that his eyewitness account was the start of a task — the task of telling both the fragments of his own history and of sharing the whole of his faith. The decision to bring his memoir, only available before now in Yiddish and Hebrew, into the world again was difficult for Rabbi Hirschprung’s family. His family submitted his memoir to our program after deciding that, for the current generation, the task begun by their father was not yet finished and it was now their task to continue to share his legacy. Although many accounts exist about great rabbis during the Holocaust, a first-person narrative by a young rabbinical student who would become a gadol hador — a revered rabbi — is quite rare. His writing makes clear that his connection to Judaism, Yiddishkayt, permeated his way of thinking and his very being. As Chief Rabbi of Montreal for almost thirty years, Rabbi Hirschprung bestowed rabbinical ordination to hundreds and, with his photographic memory, taught and inspired generations of students, rebuilding and strengthening their connection to Yiddishkayt. More than this, though, he was a model of menschlichkayt, of kindness and warmth in his dealings with others. He inspired thousands with the depth of his emunah, faith, and his sensitivity to the needs of the community and the individual.Rabbi Pinchas and his wife, Rebbetzin Alte Chaya Hirschprung, with their children. Montreal, 1968.Rabbi Hirschprung’s family, by agreeing to have the memoir translated and published, felt that if even one more person could be touched by their father’s story, then they would be taking part in the important continuation of his work. We at the Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program also cannot know where our task will end and who we will touch along the way. For many years after the war, people did not want to read or listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors, yet now these stories are often the first steps in learning the history of the Holocaust. We do know that these stories inspire people to action, even if we may never know if someone reading The Vale of Tears will be moved to learn more Torah or have more emunah in a difficult time or help a refugee. All we can do is continue what Rabbi Hirschprung started — telling the story of the Jewish people and actively taking these stories, their lessons and legacies into the future.Rabbi Hirschprung, left, with the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. New York, late 1980s.Since establishing our memoirs program in 2005, we have published the stories of more than 75 survivors and worked with educators across the country who teach the Holocaust and who, like us, see the power of memoir, the power of approaching history one story at a time. Our program is guided by simple yet quite profound convictions: every survivor has a unique story to share; our task is to commemorate those who perished at the hands of hatred and indifference, as well as to celebrate those who survived; and that it is important to honour those who risked their lives to help others. There’s a Hasidic thought that telling a story can, in itself, save the world. By sharing a story, you can save the memory of a person, and in keeping a memory alive you prevent a “second death” — the death that comes when a person, or event, is forgotten. This is why we continue to publish Holocaust survivor memoirs. From the many fragments we are honoured with, we work to tell the whole story, one story at a time.
The Rohatiner extended family before the war. Bronia (back row, fifth from the left) is standing beside her sister, Sarah. Their parents, Malka and Moses, are seated in the middle row. Kozowa, Poland, circa 1938. The descriptions of Bronia Beker’s aunt’s fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and the dense black bread and gefilte fish that Steve Rotschild’s grandmother would make in anticipation of the festive Shabbat meal make me salivate every time I read them. I could easily write a blog post about many of the Jewish foods found in our memoirs, but the one food that seems to be both uniquely Jewish and distinctively personal to each author is cholent. Created to adhere to the prohibition of not cooking on the Sabbath, this stew would be prepared before sundown on Friday and simmer on low in an oven overnight so that the family could enjoy a hot meal on Saturday afternoon. The method of cooking cholent hasn’t changed in 2,000 years, although the ingredients vary from country to country and over time. On Friday evening, a large clay pot is filled with layers of potatoes, beans, barley, meat and spices. The top of the pot is sealed with dough made of a mixture of flour, egg, water and melted chicken fat, and then covered with paper and tied with string. The pot is then put in a hot brick oven to cook slowly for twenty-four hours. The result is a delicious, hot, very aromatic meal. - Steve Rotschild According to food historian Gil Marks, the word cholent (with ‘ch’ pronounced as in ‘chair’) may have come from the French chaud-lent, meaning “warm slowly,” and, less likely, from the Yiddish shul ende, which describes when the cholent is eaten — at “synagogue end.” Steve and his mother with the Dzeviatnikov family. The Dzeviatnikovs, once landlords to Steve's family, later helped Steve hide during the Holocaust. Standing in back are Mr. and Mrs. Dzeviatnikov; in front, left to right, are Steve; Luba Dzeviatnikov; Steve's mother, Esther; and Georgic Dzeviatnikov. Vilna, 1938. Although nobody knows the exact source of the word “cholent,” the dish is without a doubt one of the most beloved Shabbat memories for our authors. On Saturday, there was always cholent for the midday meal. My mother would prepare this bean and meat casserole on Fridays and take it to the bakery, where it would cook overnight in the oven. Then, after prayers the next day, my sister and I would run to the bakery to collect it. We had a little piece of paper with a number written on it that we would give to the baker and in return, he would give us my mother’s big pot of cholent. My sister would take one side and I would take the other and we would run home quickly because lunch needed to be served. As we ran, we anticipated the aroma and the delicious meat and barley, beans and potatoes; we also knew that nestled inside the cholent there was a little sealed ceramic pot with a sweet kugel for dessert. – Pinchas Gutter Even today, I hear people talk about the warm memories and feelings that a pot of cholent conjures. People have an emotional response to the word cholent — it may be a memory of a meal at their grandparents’ house, of kiddush after shul or of that unmistakable smell that warms the entire home on a cold winter morning. I totally relate to this emotional response even though I didn’t grow up eating cholent. Shabbat stews are cooked all over the world in different ways and under many different names. My Sephardic mother would make a similar dish called dafina, an iconic slow-cooked Moroccan stew with meat and potatoes but also with chickpeas, rice and eggs. For the past decade, a more traditional Ashkenazi cholent has made a regular appearance on our Shabbat table thanks to my brother-in-law, who learned to make it while studying in yeshiva. My slow-cooker recipe has evolved over time to reflect my mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazi tastes. My current recipe is below. Cholent recipes vary greatly from region to region, and even from family to family. No two cholent recipes are exactly alike. It’s one of those dishes that evolves over generations, with spices and ingredients being added or changed to suit family tastes. Author Pinchas Gutter has adapted his traditional cholent recipe to accommodate his vegan family members. Pinchas shares his recipe here:For many, food remains the anchor to our Jewish culture and forms an essential part of our collective memory that connects us to the story of the Jewish people. Long before there were “Instant Pots” and slow cooking became all the rage, we had cholent, cooked slowly in a hot, sealed oven. When we gather around a pot of cholent with friends and family, we bring a bit of the old shtetl world into our modern lives.Jody’s Cholent Recipe 2 cups dried mixed beans 1 cup barley 2 cloves garlic, chopped 2 onions, chopped 2 lbs blade chuck steak, cut in thirds 6 potatoes, cut into chunks 3/4 cup ketchup 1 tbsp paprika 1 tsp black pepper 1 tbsp salt kishka (either vegetarian or meat) 6 whole Eggs Optional ingredients: kishka (either vegetarian or meat) 6 whole eggs Place all the ingredients, except for the optional ingredients, in the order listed in a slow cooker set on high and cover with water (or a can of beer and then water). I recommend making this in the morning, and it will be ready to be eaten for lunch the next day. The total cooking time is about 26 hours. Give it a mix every few hours throughout the day if possible and then turn the slow cooker to low before Shabbat (sunset) and add the final optional ingredients, kishka and eggs. Kishka used to refer to stuffed intestines, but it now refers to a tube of stuffing that can sometimes be vegetarian but is usually filled with meat, and can be purchased at any kosher butcher. Place the kishka across the top of the stew before turning the slow cooker to low. Adding eggs is totally Moroccan-style. Leave whole eggs on the counter while you’re cooking the cholent so that the eggs will be room temperature by the time they are added. Pop them whole in their shells into the pot when you turn the slow cooker to low. At lunchtime the following day, take the eggs out and peel them and you’ll find they’ve turned brown and absorbed all the cholent goodness. Jody Spiegel is Director of the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program at the Azrieli Foundation.