The Holocaust is part of Syd Mandelbaum’s DNA. He was conceived in the Landsberg displaced-persons camp near Munich, where his parents, Joseph and Lena Mandelbaum, spent five years after World War II before they came to the United States.
“My parents arrived seven months pregnant with me on March 21, 1950,” said Mandelbaum, who lives in Cedarhurst. “I was born May 27.”
All four of his grandparents and four uncles died in what is known in Hebrew as the Shoah. Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is commemorated in the United States and Israel on a day corresponding to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, when Jewish residents battled Nazi forces for nearly a month that April and May. German soldiers crushed the 27-day resistance, yet it remains a symbol of Jewish courage. This year, Yom Hashoah is on May 1.
Nearly 38 years ago, Mandelbaum and his father attended the world’s first gathering of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. “The thing that changed with the trip I took when I was 31 was the first generation of Holocaust survivors were coming of age,” said Mandelbaum, who’s now 68. “The survivors — many wanted to blend in, be successful, wanted their kids to blend in, that was their world. At the time we wanted the world to hear us. [My father] and I had an epiphany to go back and change the world. I wanted to help give back.”
With help from others, Mandelbaum began videotaping Holocaust survivors, and launched the organization Second Generation in September 1981, roughly three months after the conference. He said that hundreds of interviews were recorded over the course of 12 years.
“Elie Wiesel, who we met at the world gathering, encouraged survivors to be interviewed by us,” said Mandelbaum, adding that the taping was done at Lawrence High School, with the encouragement of Dale Sarro, then the head of the school’s audio and visual department.
That treasure trove of interviews with survivors, then in their 50s, 60s and 70s, was later given to director Steven Spielberg, who founded the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education (originally the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) in 1994. The nonprofit was established to record video testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. The tapes “have become a touchstone for Holocaust researchers,” Mandelbaum said.
Five Towns event
For more than 20 years, residents, synagogues and schools in the Five Towns have taken part in a Holocaust remembrance event. Held at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, it has grown to involve 25 shuls, and includes a video presentation from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway Middle School’s “Names, Not Numbers” program, and a performance by the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach’s fifth-grade choir. Roughly 1,000 people attend.
“It’s important to hold the event, because the events of the Holocaust are important for every generation to know,” said Nathaniel Rogoff, of Woodmere, one of the event organizers. “As the generation of the survivors moves on, it’s more important for us to tell their stories.”
Child survivor Judith Alter Kallman, author of the book “A Candle in the Heart,” which recounts her story, is this year’s Fanya Gottesfeld Heller keynote speaker. Heller was a noted Holocaust survivor, author and philanthropist. Born in a small village in Poland in 1924, she and her family hid from Nazi death squads with the help of two Christian rescuers. She died in 2017.
Kallman was born in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, the youngest of six children. Rescued and hidden by Jews and Christians, she spent the final year of the Holocaust in German-occupied Budapest. She came to the U.S. in 1956, after living in Europe, England and Israel.
Kallman has devoted her life to telling her story in the hope that speaking out “makes the world a better place, and stops the hatred we all have for the strangers or different people in our midst,” she has said.
“I think with anti-Semitism on the rise in a way that’s hard to believe, it invigorates the need to perpetuate the message of the Holocaust and all the commitments to our ancestors to keep their stories alive,” said Dana Frankel, a Woodmere resident and an event organizer, all four of whose grandparents were survivors. “It has become more and more important to remind ourselves of the dangers of hatred and bigotry.”
The remembrance includes a candle lighting, with a half-dozen survivors representing the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. Family members join them. “The overarching feedback from attendees is that they are overwhelmed by the stories of courage every survivor has to tell,” Rogoff said, “and they are proud of the way the Jewish people were able to rise from the ashes to rebuild. It is especially poignant when they see grandchildren and great-grandchildren standing up, lighting candles in memory of the 6 million. It is a true testament to the strength of the Jewish people.”
Finding family members
Mandelbaum said that growing up with very little family made him different from many of the people he knew, and that propelled him to establish the DNA Shoah Project in 2005. The nonprofit project asks survivors, their children and grandchildren to provide DNA samples to help build a genetic database of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their immediate descendants.
Since its inception, it is has collected nearly 1,700 swabs of DNA. As the collection moves from the University of Arizona, where it began, to Family Tree DNA, the project’s new headquarters in Houston, Mandelbaum said that matching could begin by the end of the year. “I’ve never forgotten my first epiphany and my feeling to do more,” he said, using a slightly tweaked version of “Never forget” that is part of the Holocaust lexicon. “I’m not embarrassed speaking on anti-Semitism. It happened once; it could happen again.”