It all started ten years ago, when one day Adi Altschuler, then 24, heard melancholy music playing on the radio, prompting her to call her mother in panic. “What happened?” she asked anxiously. “Has there been a terror attack?” The attack, her mother told her, had been decades earlier. Israel Radio was marking the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah.
“I couldn’t believe I had forgotten what day it was,” recalls Altschuler, now an educator and entrepreneur who has received a dozen awards for her initiatives. “I realized that I never had to remember it before. From kindergarten through the army, Holocaust Remembrance is part of the calendar. So I decided to go to the official Tel Aviv ceremony in Heichal HaTarbut. The auditorium was packed, but I was probably the only person there under 60. As survivors lit memorial torches, I was suddenly aware of being part of the last generation who could talk to eyewitnesses about what had happened.”
Through the rest of the ceremony that evening — readings and music that stirred scant emotion in her — Altschuler’s mind was racing. “I thought: What should we be remembering? How will we remember when the survivors are gone? When that historic window of opportunity closes, will Holocaust remembrance become as remote from most of us as the Tisha B’Av commemoration of the destruction of the Temple?”
In the 11 years since, Altschuler has forcefully answered those questions. This past May, with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, some 1.5 million people in 55 countries in Israel, all over Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Australia USA and Canada took part in the volunteer-run social initiative that grew from that evening. Called Zikaron BaSalon (Memories in the Living Room), Altschuler is hopeful it will take root as a Jewish remembrance tradition as powerful and permanent as the national story of slavery and redemption retold each Seder night.
Compelling and inspiring
While Altschuler emphasizes that Zikaron BaSalon, like all her initiatives, is the creation of many, the idea was sparked as she headed back to her car after the Tel Aviv ceremony in 2009. “I heard voices coming from an apartment, and looked through its window to see a boisterous group gathered around the blue glow of a soccer game on TV. Small intimate gatherings at home was the answer!”
The following year, she emailed ten friends, inviting them to her apartment on Yom HaShoah eve. The ten friends became 40, sandwiched into her living room on chairs, tabletops and the floor, looking expectantly at Chana Berger, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor whom Altschuler had asked to join them. “I hope I won’t disappoint you,” began Berger. “I wasn’t at Auschwitz. I don’t have a number on my arm. I was just a child, who ran for her life.”
“She was compelling and inspiring,” recalls Altschuler. “I don’t remember any of us moving a muscle while she spoke. She ended with a final thought: ‘Something that every survivor wonders is why they lived when so many died. At last I know why I lived. I lived to give you my story this evening, to give you the names of my murdered parents, and of the Polish woman who saved me.’
“In telling us her story,” continues Altschuler, “she allowed us to own it, too. After she left, we stayed on, drinking beer, munching Bamba, but, most of all, asking questions, challenging, wondering how we can be better by remembering our past.”
That was the first Zikaron BaSalon. The following year, Altschuler asked each of the 40 who had been there to host similar Yom HaShoah evenings in their homes, and roped in a few more, too. “We had 90 salons that year. The hosts met up afterward to share what we had learned — things like: What’s the ideal number of participants for intimate, informal groups like these? (Ten to 50, depending on the venue size). How should we prepare the survivors for the evening? How can we guide thinking, reading, talking and listening so that it’s meaningful to those who come — mainly young people, high school to late 30s? How do we get them to come in the first place? This led to the launch of our website.” (The website, www.zikaronbasalon.org, includes A Build Your Event host kit, which can be downloaded.)
Remembering around the world
The year after that, Altschuler was speaking to an Israeli friend in Miami shortly before Yom HaShoah and told her about Zikaron BaSalon. The friend decided to host one. “This was the first event outside Israel,” says Altschuler. “It was as successful as those held here, so we decided to take it everywhere we could. It’s ended up in unexpected places!”
Several Latin American countries, for example, have salons not only on Israel’s Yom HaShoah and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, but monthly. In Poland, 150 non-Jewish communities host salons, attracting mostly teens. In Germany, children and grandchildren of Nazi Party members attend salons hosted by Jewish survivors. And its format has spun off into Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community, who use it on their Sigd festival (a renewal of the covenant between God and the Jewish people) to recall the difficult, dangerous and frequently fatal journey to Israel undertaken by their people in the late 20th century.
Zikaron BaSalon also attracted the attention of official Israel. President Reuven Rivlin hosted a salon in the President’s Residence in 2016, and continued doing so until this year’s coronavirus lockdown. The IDF and Israel’s Education Ministry, Google, Facebook and some 700 private companies have also approached Altschuler and her team. “This was a challenge,” she says. “Our vision is that Holocaust remembrance is a choice, not another compulsory ceremony run by large structured organizations. It has to be from the bottom up, which creates ownership of its content. From the top down, it doesn’t. Our solution was an invitation to any potential salon hosts in these organizations, who were willing to come to a two-day seminar to engage them and personally involve them. Hundreds attended.”
1.5 million participated through Zoom
And then came the coronavirus pandemic. Its first victim in Israel was an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, who died in Jerusalem on March 20. Yom HaShoah fell a month later, on April 21, when all of Israel was in lockdown. The Zikaron BaSalon team consulted. Vulnerable Holocaust survivors could clearly not be put at risk. How could they contribute? Should this year’s salons be limited to family groups? Conducted via the media? Done online?
“We had to be creative and adaptable, and find a different way,” says Altschuler. “Zoom, then still new to many people, seemed the best option. We approached the company and told them: ‘We’re holding the biggest single private event ever, and need your partnership.’ They were truly generous and gave us thousands of Zoom IDs. Would it work? It was amazing! A million and a half people took part, alone and in groups, in prisons, psychiatric wards, homeless shelters and centers for youth at risk. It made memorializing the Holocaust accessible to sectors traditionally excluded — Haredim, refugees, the hearing-impaired, sex workers…”
“And it was all achieved with next to no resources,” stresses Altschuler. “Zikaron BaSalon isn’t an NGO. It has a very modestly paid staff of three, supported by hundreds of volunteers, including myself. It welcomes whoever wants to be part of it, whoever wants to build it and whoever wants to share their ideas about where to take it.”
A serial social entrepreneur
Although she is only 34-years old, before founding Zikaron BaSalon, Adi Altschuler's CV already included several extraordinary accomplishments that have made true impacts on humankind. When she was only 12, she started volunteering with children with physical disabilities. Four years later, she joined the LEAD leadership development program and established the award-winning Knafaim Shel Krembo (Krembo Wings), a groundbreaking youth movement for kids both with and without special needs. She served as its CEO and chairman until 2009, and its president until 2014. In 2017, Altschuler helped create INCLU-Special For All, a nonprofit that aims to make Israeli schools more inclusive. In September 2018, Israel's Education Ministry opened the country's first five Inclusive schools in collaboration with INCLU. Another eight are scheduled to open this year.
Altschuler founded Zikaron BaSalon in order to strengthen the connection between today's society and the memories of the Holocaust by offering a new, meaningful and intimate way to commemorate the tragedy of the Shoah through discussions among family, friends and guests. Judging by its remarkable growth not just in Israel but around the world, this concept was exactly what people were looking for.
Want to learn more? Interested in hosting an event this coming International Holocaust Remembrance Day? For more information, visit Zikaron BaSalon’s website: www.zikaronbasalon.org