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Girl participating in project
Photo courtesy of Remember Us
George Calmenson
Photo: Liat Josefsberg Ben-Yehoshua
Late bar mitzvah for Holocaust kids
Some 13,000 teens in US, Mexico, Australia and Canada take part in Remember Us project, commemorate life story of children who perished in Holocaust

Six millions Jews perished in the Holocaust – out of them one and a half million were children. Every child that was exterminated was a whole universe; each had a significant life story, albeit a short one, and each had a future that was brutally cut off.

 

A special project initiated in the United States, and is now making its way to Israel, aims at remembering the children who did not get to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah, with the help of those who are now celebrating theirs.

 

Remember Us organization is active in several countries, and "matches up" young adults who are celebrating their bar and bat mitzvah with the stories of kids who did not survive the Shoah.

 

Each participating boy and girl receives a memory page containing biographic information about one of the million and a half children, and is then sent to commemorate the child's life.

 

Among the numerous acts of commemoration, the teens choose to speak about the child during a sermon, do a good deed on his or her behalf, say Kaddish prayer for him or her and light a memorial candle.


Daniel Pyser, one of the participants (Photo courtesy of Remember Us)

 

Remember Us also encourages the teens to take part in positive actions on behalf of the murdered children.

 

Commemorating awful tragedy

The special project was established by 74-year-old George Calmenson of California, who worked as a principle at a Jewish school. As part of his job, he would bring Holocaust survivors to speak with the school kids, but realized that within a few years there will be no one left to tell the tale.

 

In a conversation with Ynet, Calmenson recalls that when he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, he experienced the Shoah like never before, and felt obligated to do something to commemorate the awful tragedy among teens.

 

And indeed, his vision materialized. Many participated in his project, and some even decided to take it a step forward.

 

Sam Habush Sinykin from Milwaukee celebrated his bar mitzvah in September 2008 at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun Synagogue. The guests received a pamphlet stating that as part of the ceremony, Sam will commemorate Schmuel Burstein, a 12-year-old Polish boy, who was murdered in Treblinka.

 

During his speech, Sinykin remembered Burstein, and surprised his guests by announcing that from now on he will take on the name Schmuel as his middle name – and that way he will always be remembered.

 

Keren Azoulay, a teacher at Emanuel Synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts, said she gave each participating student a silver bracelet engraved with their name, and the name of the child they were commemorating, his or her birth date, age and the date on which they died (if available). The bracelet also read: "I will remember." According to Azoulay, many students did not remove the bracelet for months.


Silver Bracelets in Massachusetts

 

Mollie and Jessica Simon's mother made them a special prayer shawl on which she sewed memory patches with the names of the two girls they were assigned to remember – Miriam Veitzenberg and Josette Arrovas. The girls did not stop there, and invited their friends to add their own patches to the shawl.

 

For Virginia to Kibbutz Eylon  

Virginia resident Sam Stein's story is particularly moving. Stein was asked to commemorate a boy called Yaacov who died in the Holocaust when he was five-years-old. Stein, along with his mother, conducted a small research and discovered that Yaacov's sister, Pola, also acted to commemorate her brother's memory.

 

The Steins found out that Pola lived in Kibbutz Eylon, but were unable to obtain the kibbutz' email address. Instead, Sam and his mother sent letters to business owners in the area, and one of them – Gilad Sheba – replied to the letter and said he knew Pola. Sheba gave Sam's mother the telephone number of Pola's daughter, Ofra, and encouraged them to get in touch with her – and so they did.

 

Later on, Sam called Ofra, who was very excited to receive the call. Ofra told Sam that her mother left the family at the age of 13 to go work – and never saw her brother or parents again. Ofra added that her mother did not remember many details, but was very happy to hear about the unique commemoration project. The Stein family sent Pola and her daughter a copy of Sam's speech during his Bar Mitzvah celebration.

 

Over five years ago, when the idea first came into his mind, Calmenson thought he would do a test run in the school he managed – and will later decide whether to expand it.

 

Worldwide phenomenon

Fifty students participated during the project's first year, and the number climbed to over 3,000 participants last year alone. In total, some 13,000 students took part in the project thus far. Other than the United States, the project traveled to Australia, Mexico and Canada.

 

Calmenson explained that he received the list of children's names from the database at Yad Vashem and that computer software guaranteed that each participating teen gets a name that has yet to be commemorated by others. "My ambition is to turn this project to a worldwide phenomenon, in all Jewish communities, so that all the children are remembered," he said.

 

Calmenson said the organization's policy was to tailor the project according to the local needs of each country.

 

In Mexico they translated all the material to Spanish, in orthodox communities they removed recommendations to say kaddish and in New York they lauded the local community's decision to initiate a memorial procession. 

 

When asked whether he has approached official sources in Israel to advance the project, Calmenson explained that his organization is very small, adding that he has been in touch with members of the Gvanim program and was trying to contact other people in order to advance the project.

 

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