‘Remembering to Forget’

By Erin Kelley

Before Isaac Neuman came to America, he met with Viktor Frankl, a friend from a concentration camp, to discuss the examination he had to undergo to get into the country. Neuman was afraid the government might discover he suffered from severe nightmares. Frankl said Neuman wanted the impossible: to choose what he could and could not remember.

“He told me (I) must remember what’s worth remembering and at the same time must try to forget by not thinking about it all the time,” Neuman said.

The Holocaust claimed the lives of more than 150 people in Neuman’s family and 12,000 people in his hometown of Zdunska Wola, Poland. From the time his town was invaded in 1939 until May 5, 1945 when he was liberated, Neuman saw things he believed humanly impossible. He feels survivors can only tell a small part of the Holocaust because the events are so horrible they don’t want to remember every detail.

“What I try to remember most are those rare moments when fellow inmates stretched out their hand to perform acts of kindness,” Neuman said. “Under such brutal circumstances, (their actions) showed not the mark of Cain but the image of God by doing acts of kindness.”

Neuman will be speaking at the Hillel Foundation on April 25 at 6 p.m. to commemorate the Holocaust. The Foundation has organized activities from April 24-26 for Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. The holiday takes place every year on the 27th day of Nisan, a Hebrew month, to remember the nearly six million Jews that died. Other activities include a memorial vigil on the Quad and “The Optimists” screening.

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“It’s a challenge for our generation and coming generations to understand the Holocaust,” said Melissa Cohen, student leadership coordinator at the Hillel Foundation.

It is important to be proactive: to meet with survivors, watch documentaries, read books and visit concentration camps when given the chance, she said.

“What is not emphasized enough is aside from the victims and direct victimizers – the kapos and guards – there were millions of others who were bystanders,” he said. “(They were) not necessarily all approving but certainly not interfering.”

People rationalized that because they were not performing evil acts they did not need to get involved. The common thought was that one person’s interference would not make a difference, but Neuman said had millions protested, the brutality could have stopped.

“If we don’t pay attention to what happened and concern ourselves with the same apathy, then the likelihood (of another holocaust) becomes increasingly dangerous,” he said.

Like Neuman, Robert Otto LeRoy found it difficult to share his experience. Michael LeRoy, professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial relations, said his father did not speak about the Holocaust until Arthur Butz published his book denying the Holocaust. Robert then founded Witnesses to the Holocaust, Inc., an organization that teaches the history of genocide focusing on the Holocaust.

Michael said his father felt defeated after the Holocaust, but believed God spared him to teach others.

“From time to time we hear of people that deny the Holocaust and that is an additional reason we are obligated to remember and tell the story,” he said.

Neuman and Robert helped develop education of the Holocaust in classrooms. Robert helped to implement the mandatory teaching of the Holocaust in Illinois public schools and spoke to organizations and schools for 30 years. Neuman was appointed to a six-year term on the United States Holocaust Memorial council by Ronald Reagan in 1986. He wrote “The Narrow Bridge,” a book that tells his tale of survival and celebrates the victory of faith over evil.

The Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation assists those interested in teaching lessons learned from the Holocaust. Joyce Meyer, the Holocaust education committee chair, said the committee connects schools with speakers and readings. Because there are not many survivors left, the committee has children of survivors speak as well. It is important not to let the memory fade, she said.

It is difficult to teach about the Holocaust and expect everyone to learn the same lesson, said Jessica Cavanagh, senior in LAS. She remembers learning about the Holocaust in high school and felt there needed to be a deeper understanding of the Holocaust’s connection with World War II.

When people call other tragedies a holocaust, it is offensive to Jews because it is a unique event in their history, Cavanagh said.

“It loses some power when people compare things to the Holocaust that aren’t accurate or misleading,” she said.

Cavanagh’s grandparents were survivors, and although they died before her birth, she said it is very powerful to know relatives survived. Her mother told her their survival story – how it had changed their lives from the way they practiced Judaism to the way they acted.

Michael said his father rejected God for a time, saying that God had died in Auschwitz. Years after being taken to the camps by train, Michael said his father couldn’t look at one. At railroad crossings, he would get out of the car and turn around until it passed.

Michael lectures about his father’s story and the misconception that something like the Holocaust could never happen. Some of the schoolchildren are moved to tears and write him touching letters.

“When it is thought of as a Jewish tragedy, lessons will be forgotten,” he said. “But when it’s thought of as a human tragedy, it will remain an example.”

Although the Holocaust was aimed mostly toward people of Jewish decent, Cavanagh said the Holocaust was meant to exterminate anyone considered unworthy including Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals, political enemies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, sympathetic citizens and other minorities.

Neuman has mixed feelings on the mandatory education of the Holocaust.

“On the one hand, it’s the only way you can transmit to new generations,” he said. “On the other, I would prefer people who liberated (the camps) be the number one speakers.”

Neuman stopped speaking on a regular basis after the government offered him money for his time. He didn’t like the idea of making money off the Holocaust.

“I didn’t want to be so steeped in the Holocaust that there isn’t a day I don’t think about it,” he said.