Bridging the past to the future in the European Jewish experience

Panelists gathered to discuss the legacy of the Holocaust in the European Jewish experience to commemorate Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day which last from sundown on April 7, 2021, to sundown on April 8, 2021. Photo provided by author

April 7, 2021 at sundown marks the beginning of Yom Hashoah, or in English, Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel and abroad, it commemorates the six million Jews murdered in the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as heroism exhibited by its survivors and rescuers. 

To observe the holiday, the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn Stamford ampus hosted a special panel discussion entitled, “Legacies of European Jewry: The Second Generation and Beyond,” moderated by Frederick Roden, professor of English at UConn, Stamford campus. 

The panel included Dr. Andrew Zalewski, vice president of Gesher Galicia, an organization that chronicles the history of Jewish Galicia and author of two books on the subject; Leora Tec, founder of Bridge to Poland, an organization that connects American Jews with their Polish roots and contemporary Poles; and Ralph Berger, who edited his parents’ memoirs as members of the Bielski partisans who survived Nazism in the Belorussian forests. All panelists had direct personal ties to the European Jewish experience, telling their own family’s stories in the context of modern history. 

Zalewski began the discussion by shedding light on the Jewish world of Eastern Europe before World War II, seen specifically in the vibrant culture of Galicia. Galicia was a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which now exists as a divided region between the modern nations of Poland and Ukraine. Zalewski’s organization, Gesher Galicia, has sought to piece together the stories of the Jewish community as it has existed over generations. 

Dr. Andrew Zalewski, the vice president of Gesher Galicia, spoke on the panel for the Legacies of of European Jewry: The Second Generation and Beyond. Dr. Zalewski’s work has gone to chronicle the lives of those living in the now-dissolved region of Galicia in modern-day Poland and Ukraine. Photo provided by author

“Let me come back to the story – or I should correct myself – the many stories of Jewish Galicia,” Zalewski said. “It is important to remind ourselves that Jews lived surrounded by Poles and Ukrainians. This provided a very important impact on the cultural development of the Jewish community of Galicia, but it was also a harbinger of many issues.” 

Tec, the founder of Bridge to Poland, explained that as a child, she never felt a connection to Poland, despite having parents born in Polish cities. Her identity was exclusively Ashkenazi Jewish until she learned the story of her mother’s experience during the Holocaust, which her mother never discussed for 30 years. 

“And after, she broke that silence,” Tec said. “As she says, her memories began to demand attention. She read one Holocaust memoir and then she was reading more and more and then she wanted to write her own story of surviving the war by pretending to be a Catholic girl with false papers.” 

Tec’s mother, who has written extensively about her own experiences and that of other Jews during the Holocaust, lived in the Polish city of Lublin. Lublin once had a bustling Jewish district but the liquidation of the ghetto during World War II decimated the community. While Lublin was once home to 43,000 Jews, only 40 Jews live there today.  

Berger’s parents were members of the Bielski partisans, a group of Jewish resistance fighters who rescued fellow Jews and fought against German occupation in the forests of Belarus. In telling his family’s story, he hopes to destroy the myth that Jews went “like sheep to the slaughter during the Holocaust.” 

Ralph Berger, one of the panelists for the event on Tuesday, April 6th, explained that his parents met as Bielski Brigade fighters, seeking to resist the German occupation of Poland. Photo provided by author

“I remember when I was a kid,” Berger said. “My dad was asked, ‘Why didn’t more Jews escape?’ and the first thing he answered was, ‘To where?’ Remember, Hitler’s armies bulldozed Europe. It is amazing that nearly 30,000 Jews were able to escape and fight the Nazis.” 

All panelists agreed that in light of recent antisemetic sentiments, Holocaust research, scholarship and education are more important than ever to preserve the stories of those who lived through and survived the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II. As the Holocaust survivor generation grows smaller and smaller as the years go on, they expressed the role of the second and third generations to educate others in the story of their people. 

“This kind of work has to come from a place of compassion,” Roden said. “From a place of love, from a place of care. It has to come from a place of respect, not only for the past, but also respect for the present moment and care for the future as we carry this forward in a particular kind of way.” 

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