By ALAN SMASON
Georgia Hunter called her maternal grandfather Papa. He and her grandmother lived only about a mile away from her childhood home in a small Massachusetts town and they saw each other all the time. Despite spending holidays, sharing family meals and going on trips together as she was growing up, Hunter never knew he was one of five Jewish siblings who, despite improbable odds, had survived the Holocaust.
“His Holocaust era past was something he chose not to talk about with me,” Hunter acknowledged in front of a room full of more than 200 assembled for the Community-Wide Holocaust Memorial (Yom Ha’Shoah) Program at the Jewish Community Center this past Sunday evening, May 5, 2019. “I really don’t think, looking back, that it was a huge secret,” she noted. “I just think it was a piece of history that he chose to put in the past.”
Unlike his four other siblings, Hunter’s grandfather elected not to remain Jewish when he arrived in America. As a result, she was never raised Jewish and only learned of his past when, at 15, she interviewed her grandmother a year after he had died for a class research project on her family history.
Some six years later at a family reunion of diverse cousins, who hailed from all over the world including Israel, Hunter heard of incredible stories of survival by her grandfather’s siblings. The stories piqued her interest. “The seed was planted that somebody needed to write these stories down,” Hunter continued. “I had never heard anything like them before and they sparked a million questions, but I knew then and there somebody had to write them down. I didn’t necessarily know that it would be me.”
It took another eight years before she would realize her destiny to record her family’s story. “Part of my hesitation, I guess I should say, was that I knew the research would involve a lot of travel,” the writer acknowledged. She began her research in Paris, then on to Brazil and across the expanse of Europe and then to the Middle East. By the time she had finished, she had visited five continents.
Because she could not interview the first generation of survivors, all but one of whom had died by the time she began her work, she chose to fictionalize several aspects of the survivors. The result was the New York Times best seller “We Were the Lucky Ones.”
Hunter chose to share the story of her research rather than reveal spoilers about her family members’ survival. But, as the book’s title does suggest, her grandfather who had escaped to Brazil and his siblings, who had all scattered across Poland, did manage to survive the Holocaust and built families and lived their lives well beyond the era of anti-Semitism and hate.
The evening’s program began with the Procession of the Survivors led by Anne Levy and her sister Lila Millen and Jeannine Burk, their children and grandchildren as well as the members of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Donald Mintz Leadership Mission to Washington.
Aaron Ahlquist, ADL South Central Region director, introduced eight of the ten individuals who were selected to study at the United States Holocaust Museum. Each of them presented historical instances where individual and civil rights were curbed or contained during the Holocaust and where similar instances exist to present day.
District A City Councilman Joseph Giarrusso III, presented a City Council resolution signed by all seven members of the Council denouncing the recent synagogue attacks at Chabad of Poway and the Tree of Life/ L’Or Simcha Syngaogue in Pittsburgh.
Prior to Hunter’s talk, Ruth Loeffelolz and Henry Rosenblat, children of survivors Ralph and Gertrude Rosenblat of blessed memory, presented a $1,000 check to Paul Distler, a former musician, who for the last 15 years has been a teacher at Cabrini High School. Distler was named the Yom Ha’Shoah Educator of the Year and he thanked his principal and fellow teachers, several of whom were in attendance to congratulate him.
Hunter and Distler were the first of six pairs to light the six memorial candles on the large wooden menorah constructed by survivor Isak Borenstein of blessed memory. They were followed by Jeannine Burk and Vivian Friedman. Next were sisters Anne Levy and Lila Millen and Marcel Garon, their grandson and great-nephew, respectively. Following them were Holocaust survivors children David and Lee Kirzner and then Sabina Barash and Betty Bloch Moore. Finally, Gary Brandt and Noam Yaillen, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, lit and placed the last of the candles onto the menorah.
Immediately following the candle lighting ceremony with music provided by pianist Armand St. Martin was a moment of silence led by Rabbi Mendel Rivkin, representing Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana. The rabbi reflected on the recent attack at the Chabad of Poway and the earlier attack six months prior in Pittsburgh.
Cantor Joel colman sang “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”), a Jewish hymn traditionally sung at Yom Ha’Shoah commemorations and based on renowned Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith.”
Leopold Sher recited the El Maleh Rachamm memorial prayer in memory of those who perished at concentration and death camps during the Holocaust, while Rosa Langley read the list of those survivors of blessed memory who came to New Orleans and became a part of its culture following the war. Sher led the audience in the recitation of Kaddish, after which Cathy Glaser, Holocaust Memorial Committee chair, thanked the audience for their attendance and all of those who had participated.
The annual event is sponsored by the the committee comprised of Judy Yaillen, JCC director of Jewish Family Life, and Wendy Goldberg, JCC associate director, Rabbi Cohn, Cantor Colman, and several Holocaust survivors and survivors’ family members.
Funding for the event is provided by the Jewish Endowment Foundation (JEF) Holocaust Project, all area synagogues, the ADL, Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, Hadassah, the New Orleans Section of the National CounciL of Jewish Women and the New American Social Club, founded by New Orleans Jewish survivors. In addition, the Feil Family Foundation and Lakeside Shopping Center also contributed to the program.
Local attorney John Menszer displayed his collection of large photographs taken of New Orleans survivors with their stories. Historic Holocaust images were also on display inside the auditorium.
Photos from the event can be seen here: