NEW YORK – Sam Meyer’s Upper West Side living room is packed. People are seated on some two dozen folding chairs, leaning on walls or squeezed together on a sofa. All eyes are on Rachel Roth, 92, who is telling her story of survival.
“I was born in Warsaw, Poland,” Roth begins. “My father was a journalist. I went to a religious school and I had a beautiful life until the war started.” The room, full of young men and women in their 20s and 30s, falls silent, captivated by this unfolding tragic tale.
The annual ceremony known as Zikaron BaSalon ("Memory in the Living Room") has become a popular ritual on Holocaust Memorial Day – especially among millennials – since its establishment in Israel in 2010.
It reached New York three years later, but spread into multiple homes only recently. This year, some 40 living rooms across the city have hosted survivors and guests, who came to talk, ask questions, read, sing and, mostly, listen.
“The special thing about New York is the large clusters of both Israeli and American-Jewish communities, who often practice Judaism in different ways,” says Ron Kormos, one of the co-founders of the unique events.
“But suddenly, on Yom Hashoah, both groups are seated together in intimate gatherings that try to both remember the past and connect to the present day – and this creates a fascinating and diverse discourse,” he says.
The concept of the living-room gatherings is simple: A Holocaust survivor gives testimony and participants take part in song and conversation, in an informal home setting that allows closeness and togetherness even among strangers.
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“We are at a very critical point in the history of the Jewish people in which there are, on one side, millennials who understand how to properly engage and pass on the message. And on the other side there is this lost generation who are still here to tell us their story – and if we don’t understand how to utilize the opportunity, it will be wasteful,” says Meyer, 25.
Wednesday evening’s talk by Roth was the first time Meyer, as part of the BAbayit, Bnei Akiva Community on the Upper West Side, hosted such an event in his apartment.
Roth tells the small crowd of her lost teenage years in the Warsaw Ghetto, where she also lost her mother and siblings. She participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt by smuggling weapons, was transferred to the Majdanek (aka KL Lublin) and then Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. She survived at the latter for two years before being moved again, to Bergen-Belsen, where she was finally liberated in 1945.
Despite damage to her hearing from the Holocaust, Roth is eager to talk and take questions, standing up for most of the evening. “If anyone wants to listen, I’m willing to tell,” she says with a big smile.
There are some 45,000 Holocaust survivors in New York today – about half of all survivors residing in the United States – according to Selfhelp Community Services. The U.S. nonprofit was founded in 1936 to help fellow refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, and is now dedicated to serving as the “last surviving relative” to Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution.
As part of the organization’s efforts to strengthen the intergenerational connection, Selfhelp also supports an eight-month drama therapy program called Witness Theater. This pairs drama students with survivors, and concludes across the city this week with a series of public performances depicting the survivors’ stories.
“We are constantly thinking about ‘How do we tell the story and how do we make sure that “Never again” remains true?’” says Sandy Myers, Selfhelp’s vice president for external relations and communications. “One of the ways is by sharing the stories of the survivor generation with these students, who, through the course of the program, literally bear witness to history and are now responsible for carrying these stories forward,” she explains.
The significance of sharing survivors’ stories multiplies as that generation dwindles. Rachel Roth had previously documented and detailed her account in numerous talks, lectures and even a book, but many survivors find it difficult to open up about their experiences.
The Zikaron BaSalon initiative offers a different kind of sharing and listening, and makes it slightly more comforting for both speaker and audience.
It’s especially important for those seeking togetherness on a memorial day that often goes by unnoticed outside of Israel, where national ceremonies take place, a siren signals a statewide moment of reflection and almost all media is dedicated to memories of the Holocaust.
“While in Israel the entire country in many ways comes to a halt, here there should be a very active choice to participate,” says Kormos. “On New York streets and on American TV, everything remains the same – so people are actually choosing to stop and take part in these gatherings.”