"Anyone can go to the Holocaust museum [in Washington DC] but not everyone gets this experience." ~A. Speitel (student, 17)
Immaculata University Hosts First Holocaust Commemoration
The music of Felix Mendelssohn, a German composer whose works were banned in Nazi Germany because of his Jewish ancestry, rang through Villa Maria Hall where more than 150 students and staff gathered for Immaculata University’s Holocaust commemoration earlier this spring. With an audience three times larger than the estimated attendance, Michael Herskovitz, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor, could address a curious crowd and fulfill a promise to himself to tell his story to the world so we might never forget.
The afternoon commemoration event began with a candle-lighting service introduced by Sister Cathy Nally, Director of Mission and Ministry at Immaculata University. Inspired by a similar ceremony done by the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews in Alberta, Canada, the purpose of the service was to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. Each lit candle represents the innocent, the talented, the martyred, and countless others, whether Jewish or Gentile, who can no longer bear witness to the world’s most horrific event in history.
Those who survived the Holocaust and wish to tell their personal histories have committed themselves to speaking painful, unimaginable truths. Marc Adelman, educator for the Holocaust Awareness Museum, informed the audience that to hear Michael Herskovitz tell his truth was an extraordinary opportunity. As members of the last generation with the privilege to witness the words of a living Holocaust survivor, the audience would never forget this day or what they heard.
Michael Herskovitz explained the normalcy of his life in Czechoslovakia prior to 1942. He never felt different from his friends or neighbors until the Nazis abruptly occupied their town, ransacked their homes, and trashed their businesses. Thirteen-year-old Herskovitz, his younger brother, and their parents were deported to a ghetto and were later sent to Auschwitz, where they endured the infamous selection process. Clutching his father’s hand, he watched as his mother carried his brother to the right, toward the gas chambers. Unwilling to separate from her four-year-old son, the two were killed upon arrival. Only moments later, in the chaos and fear of the selections, Herskovitz lost the grip of his father’s hand. He would never see him again.
As the end of the war approached and Nazi defeat became increasingly certain, the prisoners of Auschwitz were evacuated and led on forced marches toward the interior of the Reich. With Soviet forces pushing in through the east, the Nazis believed that relocating westward would buy more time. Herskovitz was evacuated from Auschwitz, in Poland, and marched to Gunskirchen in Austria, a walk of more than 100 miles. Herskovitz described Gunskirchen as a “death camp” where “living corpses” roamed the grounds amongst the thousands of dead bodies that were accumulating throughout the camp. When the camp was liberated in May 1945 by Allied forces, Herskovitz weighed less than 100 pounds.
At the end of the presentation the audience expressed their appreciation with a long, reverent applause. The 30 minutes allotted for a question and answer session quickly extended to an hour and a half as audience members ardently asked for more.
Father Joseph L. Maloney, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry, concluded the commemoration with a prayer of compassion. He expressed that we must “realize the wonderful gift of diversity among races and cultures…that we may see the divine presence in all who are different from us.”
The courageousness that Herskovitz has presented throughout his life has transcended his circumstances. While his fortitude was once necessary as a means to survive, Herskovitz now shows his courageousness by choosing to share his story with any audience who will listen. True to his promise, he reminds us of what we must never forget.