Jewish communities and individuals around the world observed Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom HaShoah in Hebrew, on April 8. The day is an internationally acknowledged commemoration of the atrocities of the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished. In Israel, a siren sounds and everything stops — including traffic and pedestrians — and for two minutes everyone stands in silence to commemorate the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Other communities around the world commemorate with services, educational programs, survivor stories, Holacaust themed films and more. 

This year,  Brandeis clubs and organizations put together virtual and in-person events to honor the legacy and memory of Jews who were persecuted and murdered. Students gathered at Fellows Gardens for two in-person events. The first was a name reading ceremony where students signed up for shifts to read names of individuals killed in the Holocaust. The second event gave students an opportunity to paint a butterfly for The Butterfly Project in memory of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust. There were also posters put up along the path by Goldfarb Library. The posters were of worker identification cards from the Lódz Ghetto, where the chairman of the ghetto helped Jewish residents survive by creating a large workforce that was vital to the German war effort. “Having a Work ID Card and an employment salary book would keep them alive for another day,” explained one of the posters. 

Chabad at Brandeis, Brandeis Hillel, the Center for German and European Studies, Judges Against Hate and the organization “Together, Restoring their Names” partnered to host a virtual event called “Mark It With A Stone” with Holocaust educator Sandy Rubenstein

“We remember all of those who perished and all those who survived, and tell their stories so their memories will never be forgotten,” Miriam Reichman ’21 said as she opened the event. 

Rubenstein introduced herself and her powerful story as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Rubenstein recalled that growing up she knew her family was different because of the unexplained tattoos on her parents’ arms and the fact that she had no grandparents. Her family shared a dark past like many other Jewish families, but they were one of the fortunate few who survived the Holocaust. 

Her father, Joseph Horn, wrote a memoir called “Mark It With a Stone” and created a video interview to ensure that his story would never be forgotten. Rubenstein said she uses her father’s story to educate students about the Holocaust. She explained that “as survivors age and are no longer with us, this primary source allows us to witness history first hand.” 

Horn was born in Poland in 1926 to a traditional Jewish family whose lives were engulfed by antisemitism. Rubenstein read excerpts from his memoir where he described moments in his childhood when “the precariousness of being Jewish sunk in deeply.” In his video interview, Horn described the terrifying feeling of watching the “whole array of great German might” arrive to Poland when he was 12.

Soon after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they established laws targeting Jews. These laws restricted both public and private Jewish life, prohibiting Jews from entering non-Jewish establishments, holding high positions in public life and practicing the Jewish religion and traditions. Even amid the danger of breaking these laws, Horn’s family decided he must celebrate his bar mitzvah. Rubenstein described the secret prayer room that a rabbi in the neighborhood had camouflaged as a wardrobe, which is where the bar mitzvah took place. Just as Horn began reading his portion in the Jewish bible, Germans stormed into the apartment. They searched the location but miraculously did not uncover the room where the bar mitzvah was being held. This was just one of the multitude of life-threatening experiences that Horn and his family faced living under German law in Poland, according to his video interview. 

In 1941, 35,000 Jews were forced to live in a small, crowded ghetto in Radam, a town in Poland. One year later, a mass deportation of the ghetto tore Horn’s family apart. Rubenstein explained that Horn's father, mother and sister were sent to Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland, while he was sent to a labor camp near Radam called Blizyn. One of his brothers managed to escape before the deportations began but his other brother, Eli, was tortured and killed while resisting the Germans.

At 17 years old, Horn was sent from Blizyn to Auschwitz, the deadliest of the Nazi concentration camps. “When I arrived I was tattooed. B1477,” said Horn. He was forced to work at the train entrance of the camp where all of the cattle cars full of Jewish people came through. Rubenstein explained that her father witnessed the destruction of thousands of Jewish men, women and children — the transports, separation of families, selections for work placements and walks to the gas chambers.

In 1944, Auschwitz was evacuated by the Germans due to speculations that the Russian army was approaching. Horn was placed in a transition camp where he worked as a mechanic in freezing weather. After shoveling snow for several days, “he didn't have the strength to live and began to long joining the rest of his family. He thought of his mother's face and wanted that vision to be his last,'' said Rubenstein. 

A year later, Horn witnessed a trio of American planes fly over the camp. This meant liberation. In the video interview, Horn explains that at this moment his strong feelings of revenge suddenly disappeared and were replaced with the first feeling of humanity in years. The overwhelming situation caused a numbness that overcame his body until a young Jewish girl approached and comforted him. They talked and danced from joy that night, Horn explained. “My great dream and desire was to survive. To be a witness,” remarked Horn in the video interview. 

After presenting her father’s story, Rubenstein showed photos of their family after the war when they had moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the late 1940s. The photos told the stories of horror, strength, freedom and survival of the Jewish people. “We must listen to voices of the past. We embody them wherever we are at any given moment. We are proof of their existence,” concluded Rubenstein.

As survivors of the Holocast leave this world, it is increasingly important for people to take on the responsibility of preserving their stories and memories, Rubenstein said. This is what Rubenstein has dedicated her career to and what she urges Brandeis students and individuals around the world to do.