More than 50 Holocaust survivors from Metro Detroit convened at Hillel on Sunday to share their experiences with students during the ninth annual Conference on the Holocaust.
The room held roughly 30 numbered tables, with one or two survivors seated at each. Attendees were encouraged to move from table to table, hearing accounts from those who were displaced from their homes during World War II.
Tilly Shames, executive director of Hillel, said descendants of Holocaust survivors have a responsibility to learn about their journeys and inform future generations.
“We’re at a time where we will not have many years left with Holocaust survivors who can share their first-hand accounts of their lives in Eastern Europe before, during, and after the Holocaust,” she said.
LSA sophomore Gabby Roth, co-president of COTH, said her involvement with the organization was influenced by her late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who made a priority of preserving his memories for future generations.
“It was really important to me to do something on campus that honored his legacy,” Roth said. “It’s definitely a big part of my identity, and I wanted to get involved in something that educated people on campus about the Holocaust.”
Roth said it has become increasingly difficult for COTH to contact the same volume of survivors, as many pass away each year.
“From last year to this year it was much harder to get survivors to come,” Roth said. “It’s really unfortunate, but it’s the last few years that survivors are around to tell their stories.”
Roth said students are eager to hear survivors recount their histories, but often find it difficult when probing for details.
“The survivors, that’s what they want to do, they want to answer these questions, they want to educate people,” Roth said.
Business senior Ariel Berger, co-president of COTH, said the organization began with the goal of keeping Holocaust memories alive.
“As students, we are presented with the incredible opportunity of being able to hear first-hand the stories of these survivors and their unimaginable hardships as well as their triumphs,” Berger said.
Sunday’s conference was the second time Holocaust survivor Helen Mechlowitz came to the University to share her story. Mechlowitz was 9 years old when World War II began and she was displaced from her home in Warsaw, Poland.
“I was with the Germans a few weeks, then we escaped,” Mechlowitz said. “We went on our way to Russia. We didn’t know where we were going.”
Relocated with her parents and her 3-year-old brother, Mechlowitz was sent to Siberia. From Siberia, they were sent to Tashkent in Kazakhstan. During the war, both her parents were arrested and jailed for selling supplies like vodka and bread. When her father was released after five years in prison, she said, he returned to where he had been arrested, and began to search for his family.
“He found my house, and my mom couldn’t recognize him,” Mechlowitz said. “He took a whole day, said I’m going to the barber, and then she recognized him and brought him home.”
Then 14 years old, Mechlowitz spent two years in a kibbutz in Israel, where she met her husband.
“Kibbutz, you’re eating together, you’re working together, you’re dancing together, you’re going together, you’re talking together every minute and every hour,” Mechlowitz said. “Everybody’s together like sisters and brothers. Everyone is family.”
Now a widow of 30 years, Mechlowitz lives alone.
“I don’t have nobody, just my kids, but not family,” Mechlowitz said. “My kids they are my family, but they are married, all three. I have grandkids, and I’m very happy from them.”
Survivor Alex Raab lives in West Bloomfield after he was displaced from Poland during the war.
“I didn’t have a country, I didn’t have anywhere to go,” he said.
Raab said he was rejected from entering Israel by British troops. From there, he moved to Cyprus until the State of Israel was created.
Raab said he spent 15 years living in Ramla, a city east of Tel Aviv.
“I lived over there by myself until I met my wife, got married,” Raab said. “And then we immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 to the Detroit area.”
LSA senior Kelly McDonald said though she is not Jewish, hearing stories directly from survivors was invaluable for students of all religious backgrounds.
“It’s not something you can just look up online,” McDonald said. “Hearing it in person is a lot more meaningful.”