Thanks to Yad Vashem’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program, each month around 150 families from around the world adopt the memory of some of the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered in the Holocaust. The special ceremony held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is a powerful way to connect modern-day Bar/Bat Mitzvah children (Bnei Mitzvah) with their heritage and history, and it inevitably leaves a profound impact on all the participants.
The program matches Bnei Mitzvah with a “twin” who died in the Holocaust and never celebrated this important Jewish rite of passage. Matches are made according to name, birthday or place of birth. For example, Yad Vashem recently paired American 13-year-old Jacob (Cobi) Koppel Salzhauer, who came to Israel on a Bar Mitzvah trip this August, with Dovid Yaakov Hasenkopf. The first Yaakov/Jacob was shot to death, along with his mother and sister, trying to escape the Krakow ghetto. The second is the son of a renowned plastic surgeon and media personality from Bal Harbor, Florida.
“Today, when so many North American kids have everything they could want, and live in a world of smartphones and videogames, we parents struggle to find ways to communicate values,” says Cobi’s father, Mike. “That’s what the Yad Vashem program does – and I speak from experience. We’re repeat customers. Cobi’s two older brothers have ‘twins’ through the program, and we plan to bring our youngest here in two years’ time.”
An uplifting experience
The Taragins of New York City were also looking to add meaning to their son Solly’s Bar Mitzvah. “My husband Bruce and I always planned to celebrate it in Israel, because we have a lot of family there,” says his mother, Michelle. “I looked online to see if there was anything we could do beyond the Shabbat morning synagogue service and a family party. I found Yad Vashem’s Twinning Program, and it sounded appropriate. We never expected it be the absolute highlight of this important milestone in Solly's life.”
Hallie Kopel of New York City, who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Yad Vashem last year, has a family connection to the Holocaust. Her great-grandfather Murray (Moshe) Pantirer was number 205 among more than 1,100 Jews on Oskar Schindler’s list of protected workers, all of whom survived. “Hallie always knew that she wanted her Bat Mitzvah to honor her family history,” says her mother, Julie. “She’s grown up knowing through Zaide what it means to lose a whole family and build a new one.”
Developed a decade ago, Yad Vashem’s fast-growing Twinning Program is as varied as the families it serves. “The youngsters come from all Jewish denominations from all over the English-speaking world and throughout Latin America,” says Malka Weisberg of Yad Vashem’s International Relations Division, herself the child of survivors. “Some are from families with a searing Holocaust history, others have no direct connection. Some come with only their immediate family, some with large extended families, others in school groups or with friends. We’re in close touch with all of them beforehand to design a visit which is right for them, and which engages the next generation, the future of remembrance.”
The visit usually begins in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum. “I worried that it may be too grim for a Bar Mitzvah celebration but, sad though it was, it was somehow very uplifting,” says Michelle Taragin. “It was geared to my son and my young nieces and nephews, focusing on children and family during the Holocaust, and what they faced, but its emphasis was on family life, community and rebuilding, on hope, belief and faith. Its message was: This is our story. We survived it.”
When Cobi Salzhauer toured the museum, he was looking at the life his great-grandfather had fled. “Pogroms drove my family from Ukraine to Berlin and Vienna at the outbreak of World War I, after its patriarch was clubbed to death by a Cossack,” explains Cobi's father Mike. “Just over two decades later, the Nazis came to power and they were on the run again. My grandfather came to Eretz Israel, and my father was born in Tel Aviv, where he lived until 1958.”
Hallie, acutely aware of her family’s past, began her Bat Mitzvah visit at the tree planted in memory of Oskar Schindler on Yad Vashem’s Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations, honoring non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. With her father Reuben, 10-year-old sister Romi and seven-year-old brother Murray, she watered Schindler’s tree. “There were 150 of us there, all descendants of my grandfather,” says Julie. “He was the only survivor of his family.”
Making a personalized connection
The official twinning ceremony, which follows the museum visit, is also tailored to each family. Some ceremonies are held in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, which contains some 2.3 million Pages of Testimonies memorializing Holocaust victims gathered by Yad Vashem over six decades, as well as some 600 rare photographs of the victims. Others take place in Yad Vashem’s light-filled synagogue, designed by Moshe Safdie, which displays restored Judaica from destroyed European synagogues. Another option is the square in memory of Janusz Korczak, the Polish Jewish educator who chose to go with the children he cared for to their deaths in Treblinka.
Solly Taragin’s service was, in Michelle’s words, “magical. There was candle-lighting, members of the family were called up, and we read beautiful poems,” she says. “Then Solly was given the certificate matching him with his twin – a boy called Shlomo – formally recognizing that he, Solomon Taragin, was adopting Shlomo’s memory. Solly was intensely moved. He was also given the Page of Testimony about this murdered child, and a blurred black-and-white photograph of him. It made it very immediate and personal for him. We’re a modern Orthodox family; all our children are in Jewish day schools and our Jewish identity is strong – but for Solly this was a concrete connection to his Jewish heritage.”
Hallie Kopel screened a 12-minute video about her family history, which she had made with her parents for her Yad Vashem ceremony. “My family makes me who I am,” said Hallie, the eldest of the great-grandchildren, who remembers her Polish great-grandfather clearly and affectionately. “It’s important to know where you’re from, so that you know where you’re going.” As part of the information packet that Yad Vashem prepared for her, Hallie received a copy of the famous Schindler’s List.
Forging a bond with our shared past
The Twinning visits usually end at the Children’s Memorial – a moving space hollowed out from an underground cavern, lit by five candles that are endlessly reflected in the mirrors that line its walls. Names of Jewish children murdered during the Shoah hauntingly echo through the chamber. “For many of the youngsters in our group, this was the part that especially spoke to them,” says Michelle.
Yad Vashem’s museum and memorials play an important role in the Twinning Program, but families unable to come to Israel can also take part in the program. “We find them a twin, and send the Page of Testimony, photos if there are any, and a certificate,” says Weisberg. “Some of these families have managed to trace relatives of the murdered children, and invited them to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration.”
“Whether they come to Israel or mark the occasion at home, parents want their children to find meaning as they cross this symbolic threshold into adulthood,” says Michael Fisher, Director of the US Desk in the International Relations Division of Yad Vashem. “Yad Vashem’s goal is to infuse a sense of pride in our shared heritage through a myriad of remembrance and educational activities. The Yad Vashem Twinning Program offers youth celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvah an opportunity of forging a bond with their Jewish past – of getting to know, at least in part, a child whose life was cut short, a child much like themselves, who had a family, lived a life, and nurtured hopes and dreams.”