Yeshivat Shaare Torah Boy’s Elementary School has been preparing its eighth graders for a vital historical role they will play 32 years from now, in the year 2045.

The innovative “Adopt a Survivor” program is the brainchild of Mr. Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor who spent time at the notorious Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, and is now the Director of the Holocaust Resource Center. Mr. Roth trained and worked in engineering, but his avocation and passion is Holocaust education. He devotes his time to writing and speaking about his experiences, and actively promoting Holocaust education, in order to ensure that the atrocities which he and millions others experienced during World War II will never be forgotten.

The “Adopt a Survivor” concept was devised in response to an unsettling question which had weighed heavily on Mr. Roth’s mind: how will the world commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on January 27, 2045?  Will it just be a “day off,” when people will shop and run errands?  With no survivors remaining to tell their stories, what kind of commemorations will be held to mark this occasion?

The solution was both brilliant and simple: to create “surrogate survivors” whose memories will preserve the experiences of the Jews trapped in the Nazi death machine during the Holocaust. By bringing together today’s youth with the remaining survivors, Mr. Roth allows the survivors to share their stories and preserve the memory of this darkest of chapters in human history.

The eighth grade students of Shaare Torah Boys Elementary were assigned survivors with whom they would meet to hear their firsthand accounts of their lives before, during and after World War II. They heard about the survivor’s family and childhood and how life was changed during the Holocaust. The students also heard personal anecdotes that brought what would otherwise be dry textbook material to real life so they could genuinely feel and understand the survivor’s experiences.

“How Can We Complain?”

The program culminated with a special assembly held at the school on May 30, attended by Rabbi Hillel Haber, Rosh HaYeshiva, along with distinguished members of the Yeshivat Shaare Torah Board and Administration, who heard dramatic presentations by the students whose lives were permanently changed by the men and women who became their personal heroes.

The assembly began with opening remarks by Rabbi Shmuel Schwebel, General Studies Principal, who noted, “We gather here together at the culmination of a life changing experience. It’s the beginning of a journey that inspired our eighth grade boys to step into someone else’s shoes. ‘Adopt a Survivor’ affords us the opportunity to hear, to see, to feel and to relive the life of the survivors and to ultimately take on their identity. What better way is there to really understand and appreciate what another Jew experienced in life? Our surrogate survivors have been chosen as shelihim (messengers) for a very special mission. What an uplifting feeling for the survivors.”

Rabbi Haber, overcome by emotion, left the audience with a very clear message: we have no right to complain about our lives. After meeting Jews who went through the horrors of the Holocaust, he said, we can never allow ourselves the right to bemoan the so-called “problems” that we experience. “How can we complain after hearing what these victims and survivors of the Holocaust endured? How we even say that it is too hot or that it is too cold!”

Heroes Don’t Prepare

Rabbi Haber’s inspiring remarks were followed by a brief address by Eddie Harari, who represented last year’s graduating class of Shaare, the “First Generation Shaare Torah Surrogate Survivors.” The audience then heard presentations by members of this year’s graduating class, who spoke of the lives of the three survivors with whom they met – Mr. Irving Roth, Mr. Ronald Ungar, and Mrs. Rachel Epstein – and recited original poetry.

Mrs. Epstein grew up in France, and in 1942, her parents were taken away by the Vichy government of occupied France. Her gentile neighbors agreed to watch over the children, Rachel and her brother Leon, until the parents returned. Unfortunately, however, the parents never returned. Their holy souls were returned to the Almighty along with those of so many other Jews in the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Mrs. Epstein says she feels it is her job to tell her story as an expression of gratitude to the righteous gentiles who risked own lives to fulfill the promise they made to her parents, a”h, that they would protect their two children. Together with her brother, Leon Malmed, Mrs. Epstein lobbied for their rescuers to be honored by Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Among the Nations” project, and the honor was given at a special ceremony in 1977.

The final speaker was Mr. Manny Haber, President of the Board of Yeshivat Shaare Torah, who had just returned from Israel and had visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel three days earlier. “What happened in the Holocaust was beyond imagination,” Mr. Haber said. “We have to think about the survivors in the context of heroes. Heroes are ordinary people doing the best that they can with the hand they’ve been dealt.” He proceeded to explain that heroes are the ones who achieve greatness without being given the opportunity to prepare for their accomplishments. Great neurosurgeons and great athletes, for example, prepare for excellence, but “heroes don’t prepare. We have to remember and have great admiration and respect for people subjected to things they didn’t prepare for yet overcame all odds.”

Each survivor was presented with a special drawing by one of the surrogates, and with a copy of the book Wall of Tears written by the students with the help of ELA specialist Mrs. Miriam Nierenberg.

Shaare Torah is doing its part to ensure that in 2045, these heroes as well as the millions of kedoshim (sacred martyrs) will be on hand to give their testimony to the world.  The memories, still fresh in their minds, are being successfully transferred to the youth of today, who have reverently accepted this holy task of seeing to it that the world does not forget, that the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust will forever remain a part of human consciousness, and that the memories of its victims will endure for eternity.