About 75 people gathered Sunday afternoon for the dedication of Phase I of the University of Denver Holocaust Memorial Social Action Site. Represented at the event were Holocaust survivors, donors, faculty from the Center for Judaic Studies and the Iliff School of Theology, graduate, undergraduate and high school students, and representatives of various faith traditions.
The university held an indoor reception with a kosher buffet before the event. During the reception, Eric Cahn, a Holocaust survivor, related his story to this reporter:
I was born in Mannheim, Germany in March of 1938. My younger sister and my parents, along with hundreds of other Jews, were taken out of our homes on October 22, 1940 by the Nazis, deported to the southern part of France to a place called Camp Gers, which was a holding camp. We lived there and survived there until August of 1942.
At that point my parents had a decision to make, a choice to make. The French Resistance had infiltrated the camp and was offering to take children out of the camp to save them. So in August of 1942, my parents made that decision to give us up to the French Resistance. My sister and I were taken out of the camp, and each of us was placed with separate French Christian families, who then hid us from the Nazis.
In the meantime, my parents were taken from Camp Gers to Auschwitz, where my mother perished. My father actually managed to survive. In the spring of 1944 my sister and I were reunited in an orphanage outside of Paris. My father, after being freed from Auschwitz, had gone back to Germany. He spent two years searching for us. In the fall of 1946, my sister and I were reunited with our father.
He had survived Auschwitz and physically he was OK. But as a person, he had lost an awful lot. He never, ever spoke of his experiences or what he had to do to survive. He told us our mother had died. He would not speak about how she had died. After a few months, I feel like he realized he couldn't be the father he wanted to be. He made plans to send us to America under the Displaced Persons Act.
We arrived in Colorado in the spring of 1950. We ended up in an orphanage in West Denver, where my sister and I lived until we graduated high school. I went on to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and graduated from there, started my career, got married and started a family. That's my story.
Mr. Cahn survived the emotional and psychological horror and trauma of the Holocaust, as he describes: "The kind of person I am, the kind of person I have become, is because of my mother, even though I only had four and a half years with her. I try to live by the Golden Rule, 'Do unto others as would as I would have them do unto me.' I have had some therapy and I have a family that is wonderfully supportive of me."
Over lunch, Dr. Edward Antonio, Associate Professor of Christian Theology and Social Theory and Associate Dean of Diversities at Iliff School of Theology, a Methodist who came from Kenya 13 years ago, said,
The memorial is about remembering the Holocaust and the evils perpetrated against the Jewish people and others. It is also about remembering the events and circumstances that led to that horrific event in modern history. What I mean by that is the way hate and hatred were cultivated as a means of organizing society. One of the things I think about on a day like this is the importance of making sure there is less hatred in the world.
The othering of people in America today is a similar process, this existence of an "us" against "them" mentality and the scapegoating of people who are different than us. Right now, we are going through the events of remembering 9/11. Many of us have to resist the temptation to think of every Muslim as an enemy or as a potential terrorist.
So we need to be careful, because, although there are no exact parallels, there are sorts of things going on today similar to the circumstances that led up to the Holocaust. The circumstances had a lot to do with the othering of the Jewish people, of gays, of gypsies, of the mentally ill and other people.
The guests assembled outside at the partially completed memorial after lunch. Conceived in 2007, ground was broken in 2008, and, last year, the site was dedicated with the laying of the first stone. In Phase I, the central concrete enclosure and the seating benches were constructed. Their shapes are based on the letters of the Hebrew word for life, chai.
Dr. Sarah Pessin, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Belief and the Director of the Center for Judaic Studies said, "We are not trying to create a museum, or a reflective piece of artwork, or even a space for solemn reflection. We are creating a space for dialogue and teaching and learning."
During the next phase of development of the memorial will incorporate Isaiah 57:19 at the entrance to the enclosure in Hebrew and English: "Peace, peace, to the far and near, says the Lord."
Large latticework will be constructed outside the enclosure visible from a nearby thoroughfare representing the letters of the Hebrew word, "Hineni," meaning "Here I am," according to Dr. Pessin. Moses responds "Hineni" ("Here I am") when God calls to him from the burning bush on Mt. Sinai.
"Where this term comes up in the way we are specifically using it, is in the post-Holocaust philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas," said Dr. Pessin.
In Levinas, Hineni is always responding to the voice of God. But in Levinas the voice of God is equal in importance to the face of another person. He means that anytime I face you, literally looking in the face of another person should feel just the way Moses felt in that biblical story.
Levinas specifically focuses on the widow, the orphan, the person in need. When you stand before that person or any person, you should be called to serve them and feel a deep sense of reverence in their presence. Levinas says after the Holocaust, there is no other alternative than to stand in front of the other person, any other person, and feel as if God's voice were issuing from them. And we must stop and make service to that person a priority in the deepest sense.
Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav of Wisdom House said, "This memorial is adding a whole other dimension to Holocaust memorials. One excellent way to honor those who died, those who fought to liberate the camps, and those who hid Jews, is to honor all those who work for social justice. It is honoring those who died and those who struggled to save lives by honoring those who struggle to make the world a more just place today."
While waiting for the dedication to begin, Holocaust survivor Osi Sladek shared his story with this reporter:
I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1935. Unfortunately I was born at the wrong time. My family and I were caught up in World War II and the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust. I spent my first 10 years in hiding and trying to survive the round-ups of the Jewish families in our town. And luckily enough we were able to avoid them with the help of Gentile people who hid us in their homes. We ended up in the mountains of Slovakia where we were liberated by the Russian Army in 1945.
I didn't have a childhood and I lived in fear. But I did not grow up with any hatred in my heart. The opposite actually. I believe in people of all different nationalities and religions trying to get together to come up with solutions for the problems we have. The 20th century was the worst century for genocide. More people died from brother killing brother than at any other time. I hope we have learned something.
I am doing my best in my adult life to try and be involved in activities where we hope to create a better world where our children and grandchildren and all the generations to come will not have to experience the terrible hatred and persecution. Everybody deserves to live a normal life, in peace and brotherhood and acceptance. Certainly, we are all different, and being different is good. But separating ourselves and pretending we are better than others does not contribute to unity in the world.
As a child, as I was struggling survive, I had only one question: How could my neighbors turn against me? I could not understand how adults could turn against their own neighbors, their brothers and sisters. I couldn't understand this human psyche that could turn around and have this hatred.
We human beings are created with both love and hatred in our hearts. It is up to us to determine which road we are going to take: The road of love or the road of hatred. If we do not learn how to activate our inclination for love and brotherhood, eventually there will be more discrimination and more killing.
The dedication program consisted of Hebrew prayers of both thanksgiving and mourning, of remarks by leaders of various faith traditions, by persons central to the development of the memorial and by sharing from the younger generation. University undergraduate and graduate students and high school students shared their reflections.
Ella Peterson, student president of Hillel and Never Again!, shared a poem by the now deceased Holocaust survivor, Israeli university professor and poet, Daniel Pagis:
WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED RAILWAY-CAR
here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i