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Engaging in education to prevent genocide generates allies, solidarity

Hershel Zelllman is one of the organizers of Yom Hashoah.

Over his 22 years of helping organize Temple Beth Shalom’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, Hershel Zellman said his perspective has changed from seeing Jews as victims of the Holocaust to seeing that Jews have a responsibility to teach the world how to prevent genocide.

His wife, Mary Noble, gathered people to plan the first Community Observance of the Holocaust in 1995.  The 14 organizers of this year’s observance seek to involve and inspire the community to be proactive in preventing genocide. 

The Observance will be at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 23, at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th. 

Elements of the observance are designed with education in mind.

• Someone lights a candle to honor “the righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who saved Jews.  The candle lighter is someone local who promotes human rights.

• Since 2008, one candle lighter is a local person—usually a refugee—who has experienced genocide in his/her homeland.

• Organizers have invited local young musicians to provide music for the observances. 

• In 2006, they began the Eva Lassman Memorial Writing Contest, and recently added an Art Contest.  Both engage middle school and high school students to write or create art on a theme.

The theme for the 11th Annual Writing and third annual Art Contest is “And the World Watched.”

“We ask students to reflect on the most premeditated genocide in history.  From 1933 to 1945, Nazis and their collaborators exterminated 6 million Jews and 5 million others they deemed unsuitable—including the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, people with disabilities and political dissenters,” Hershel said. “World leaders knew about the Holocaust, but chose not to act.”

The essay prompt reads: “Based on what you have learned from resources provided and others, choose one country that failed to come to the aid of the millions of Jews in the Holocaust.  Identify and discuss the social, economic and political forces existing in the country at the time that contributed to its inaction.  How could that country have responded differently in order to change the course of history?”

The art contest prompt reads: “Art has the potential to evoke action because imagery affects us on an emotional level.  Based on what you have learned using resources provided and others, design a piece of art that you feel might have motivated world leaders and their citizens to intervene in the Holocaust.” The art is on display until April 19 in Gonzaga University’s Hemmingson Center.

Hershel believes it’s important that the contests introduce students to the Holocaust and challenge them to dig deeper.

Hershel came to Spokane 39 years ago to start his career in medicine, having just completed a family medicine residency in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. 

He grew up near Los Angeles, attending a synagogue that was comprised half of German Jews who came to the United States before World War II and half who came as survivors of the Holocaust after the war.

“I heard stories of camps and people in hiding,” he said. “My best friend’s family were survivors.  I was aware that 6 million Jews were massacred.  I felt like Jews were victims.”

While the world has not stopped genocide, there has not been anything as systematic as the Holocaust, he said.

At the Yom Hashoah Observance, Hershel presides over the candle-lighting ceremony, which includes recognizing survivors, their children and grandchildren, the liberators, the righteous and genocide survivors.  He tells stories of the lives of each, like those fleeing genocide in Sudan, Rwanda, Burma and Bosnia as refugees and coming to Spokane. 

“I tell their stories so they are more than a name and face,” he said.

This year, the committee tried to find a Syrian refugee to light the candle for victims of a genocide or a mass civilian casualty event.  The person they invited was afraid to appear in public.

“We may find someone or have an empty seat,” he said. 

Interest grew in commemorating the Holocaust as Eva Lassman and other local Holocaust survivors started talking about their experiences.  Like most, Eva said little about being a survivor, not even to her children.  In the early 1990s, she went to a convention of Holocaust survivors, and Elie Wiesel implored them to speak out and not be silent, Hershel said.

Eva spoke at area schools.  Since her death, Carla Peperzak now speaks at schools and is on the Speakers Bureau for the Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity.

“For many years, people here, Jews included, did not want to hear about the Holocaust, even when Eva was willing to talk.  It was too awful, too unbelievable,” he said.  “Some just wanted to put it behind us, but the Jewish community came around to wanting information out for people to learn the lessons.”

Hershel, who is gratified that Yom Hashoah is now an institution, said this year the candle honoring “the righteous” will be lit by Skyler Oberst for his leadership of the Interfaith Council, educating people about local faith communities and working for human rights.

“In selecting ‘the righteous,’ I have learned that people who care about human rights do exist in Spokane.  They challenged the anti-Semitism of the Aryan Nations in the 1980s and 1990s.  It’s wonderful to reveal people doing good work and the organizations they are involved in,” he said.

“The nicest revelation is that our region stands for caring, inclusiveness and support of people threatened by hate,” said Hershel, who represents the Jewish community on the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force. 

Now retired three years from practicing family medicine, he volunteers to treat homeless people at the House of Charity clinic, where he hears “the amazing stories of people who are survivors in their own ways.”

In today’s atmosphere of hate, Hershel said the 2017 Yom Hashoah theme, “And the World Watched,” speaks to the lack of reaction from Allied powers to mass killings in Europe. 

An example of the rejection was 900 Jewish refugees who left Hamburg in 1939 on the SS St. Louis.  They expected to disembark in Cuba and find a way to the U.S., but Cuba rescinded their visas.  They had to go back to Europe where half found refuge in friendly countries in Scandinavia, England and France, and half went back to Germany.  Of those, half perished in the Holocaust.

Hershel is concerned about today’s immigration ban.

The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’  How can we now say we do not want those people?” he asked.

While an Anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying message spray painted on a Seattle synagogue once would have made him feel a victim, today he knows there are many local allies in solidarity with the Jewish community.

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