I thought it was risky expecting college students to give up a Friday night and come to Hillel, the Jewish Student Center, to hear a Holocaust survivor. We usually invite speakers during the week and had already held two ceremonies, one on the SFSU campus. But sometimes you hold events just because they are popular, and sometimes: something needs to be said.
A student requested that we invite her grandfather, who has a tragic but amazing story. I was stunned to see our small family house fill with over 80 students. People stood along the walls, sat on the stairs and all listened in silence as Herbert Heller told how he was ordered as a boy to take some laundry for a guard’s son, and instead put them on and walked out the camp and escaped.
He told us of coming to America and trying to live a fulfilling life without hate and guilt guiding his every step. His voice was quiet and clear. He was not a polished speaker, which only served to make the experience so much more genuine. He was one of our friend’s grandfather. He could have been anyone’s grandfather.
I walked around afterwards asking students if this was their first time hearing a Holocaust survivor and why they had come. I was particularly interested in a small group of students I had never seen; a group that I decided was probably not Jewish. They had been invited by two Jewish students when they had heard these students talking about how important this was to them, they had felt a clear sense of purpose that this was something they wanted to experience.
The common response I received was that a sense of urgency, that a window is closing on the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. There is a genuine concern among millennials, who are fueled by a sense of justice and order, that the Holocaust will become just another massacre of a people in a long historical list of shame on humanity, but a page in a history book, nonetheless.
I fear for our ability to keep telling the story. I believe we must each find the opportunity to meet and hear a Holocaust survivor, especially if this someone is a family member.
Two 18-21 year old students said to me separately (paraphrasing): You have the opportunity to bring this amazing man to speak to me, but what will I do in order to pass on the story to my children, to my grandchildren?
We need to hear the story. As Elie Wiesel said: we need to bear witness. When these students sit down with their children and grandchildren, they will begin their story with:
“One Friday night I met this amazing man and he told me his story…”
Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.