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Shem Olam: Preserving the Spirituality And Emunah of the Victims of the Shoah

As we enter into a period of Holocaust remembrance and commemorations, we must bear in mind that the Shoah was about more than the physical annihilation of over 6 million Jewish victims. It was equally about the “power of coping, the allegiance to moral values, the retention of the human image and the survival of the spirit and faith.” This crucial message was the impetus for Rabbi Avraham Krieger in founding Shem Olam in 1996, located on the campus of Yeshivat Kfar Haroeh, the first hesder yeshiva, in the Chefer Valley in Central Israel.

As a son of Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Krieger’s mission, together with his co-founder Rav Moshe Chabah, both former Ramim at the yeshiva, is to educate the world about spirituality during the Holocaust by operating a Pedagogic Center that welcomes hundreds of visitors; showcasing a museum that focuses on the ethical and moral dilemmas of the era; creating and distributing comprehensive curricular materials in Hebrew and English; and holding public seminars and workshops. Rabbi Kreiger was one of the pioneers in personally leading youth groups to the lost communities of Europe, and to date has provided sensitizing workshops to thousands of groups prior to their departure.

A second but equally vital mission of Shem Olam is to salvage and restore remaining historical remnants of the Holocaust They accomplish this through engaging the expertise of 11 full-time skilled researchers in Eastern Europe, administering two professional research institutes in Europe and Israel, and sponsoring regular document and artifact recovery missions to former Jewish communities in Europe. To date, Shem Olam has accrued over 1 million artifacts, which can be studied at their publicly accessible research library. In addition, they have amassed and cataloged thousands of eyewitness testimonies.

On our recent visit to the Shem Olam headquarters in Kfar Haroeh, we were toured by Rav Chabah through one room of the museum, which houses a selection of personal artifacts rescued from the Shoah. For each of the artifacts Rav Cabah shared the story of the spiritual strength and resilience that was expressed through the object.

The Lodz Ghetto, which housed over 200,000 prisoners at one time, served the Germans as a workshop for textiles, shoes and carpets. The supervisor of the carpet weaving was a prisoner by the name of Moshe Warshavsky, who had owned a carpet manufacturing business before the war. In appreciation for his humane treatment of them in the Lodz Ghetto, the prisoners created a blue and white carpet out of thousands of scraps of wool with Shana Tova greetings from the year Tav, Shin Bet, 1942. Using the colors of the Magen David and illustrations of a spidery bridge that represented a gateway to freedom, these prisoners expressed their unshaken humanity by illustrating their gratitude to a man who showed them kindness and their hope for a future of freedom in the Jewish State. Alongside the carpet, two portraits of prisoners were displayed, one with dark hues made of coal and the second painted with carrot juice to portray light and hope.

A second artifact displayed was a round Pesach matzah cover embroidered in bright colors. In the corner the creator had embroidered the initials of an individual. The matzah cover had been salvaged after the war and brought to the attention of Shem Olam along with the poignant story behind it. As the residents of a small Polish town were about to be deported to Auschwitz, a young Polish woman who was engaged to be married hid the precious matzah cover, which she had lovingly embroidered for her chatan but did not have time to deliver before deportation. As she and her fellow prisoners disembarked the cattle car a few kilometers before the entrance to the notorious death camp, the young girl escaped the line and handed the cover to a Polish young woman whom she begged to try to locate her fiancé and give him the cover with a message of love. Unfortunately, the cover did not find its way to the young chatan, but the creation of a ritual object as an expression of love and emunah within the darkest surroundings serves as a strong message of the indomitable spirit of the victims of the Shoah.

A third highly moving artifact was a complete siddur whose pages were yellowed and stiff from age. On the front cover was a Magen David and the name of a young woman, Sarah Lea. Following the name was a powerful message, “Tahte Nekama” (“Father Revenge”). Through research the experts at Shem Olam traced the siddur to Moshe Kaminike, an inmate at Treblinka, who wrote these powerful words with his own blood. While in the depths of an unending abyss, he pays tribute to the memory of his beloved daughter whose life was brutally snuffed out. Yet, he still is able to call upon God as his Father whom he begs for revenge.In the absence of ink, he uses his own blood to record his unwavering spirit and hope.

Around the room were several pairs of Shabbat candlesticks. They ranged from those made of strong metals, to those made of tin and eventually those made of wood carvings. The victims of the Shoah are letting us know that despite their dire circumstances, they still attempted to honor the Shabbat through creating pamutim, candlesticks, with the ever-decreasing materials which they could obtain. They never lost their connection to the holy day of Shabbat and their Creator.

Shem Olam is concerned that the memories of the Shoah will be evaporating over the next generations that come after the second and third generations of today. To combat this diminution, they are enlisting the talents of popular singing artists to create ballads and songs that commemorate the Shoah and which will be disseminated through social media.

Shem Olam is also directing its efforts to American young people who study in Israel and then go back to hostile college campuses to confront Holocaust deniers and anti-Israel propaganda. “As Rav Krieger expressed: “Students on campuses are forced to fight antisemitism. At Shem Olam, we give them material they can use to respond, materials that do not emphasize the low points but rather the values, spirit and strength expressed widely during the Holocaust.”

By Pearl Markovitz

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