International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27 every year, which is marked with special commemorations and tributes to those who died, to those who survived, and to those who assisted the victims throughout World War II. This year (2021), the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles offered its members an online video from 2006, Volevo Solo Vivere (I Only Wanted to Live).* Directed by Mimmo Calopresti and executive produced by Stephen Spielberg, this documentary presents the Italian Jewish experience through the eyes of nine Italian citizens who endured countless horrors. The film begins with the days of Mussolini and the Italian racial laws of 1938, and then recounts the memories of deportation and internment of these nine in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps, the separation and suffering of all and the deaths of so many, through to the final days of their liberation on January 27, 1945.
One of the most compelling stories is told by a woman who, during liberation, watched in disbelief as some of the Nazis at Auschwitz removed their uniforms and tried to blend in with the prisoners. For a moment, she had the opportunity to grab a pistol and shoot a former guard. Her decision to abide by her own moral code triumphed over her desire for revenge. She also described the first food she ate upon liberation—apricots given to her by an American soldier. To this day, she associates the taste of apricots with the joy of freedom.
I watched this documentary with my friend Jean Perloff, who lives in Santa Barbara and is fluent in Italian. Actually, we watched it in our own homes because of the pandemic, but talked about the film together after viewing it. In the spirit of “Never Forget,” we also discussed our experiences at Holocaust museums. Jean recounted her experience at the museum in Jerusalem: “Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims. It is dedicated to preserving the memories of the dead, honoring the Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and the Gentiles who helped the Jews in need. Built in 1953, Yad Vashem is located on the western slope of Mount Herzl, also known as the Mount of Remembrance. The memorial consists of two types of structures: some are dedicated to the scientific study of the Holocaust and genocide in general, and others are memorials and museums for the general public.
“A fundamental goal of the founders of Yad Vashem was to recognize non-Jews who, at personal risk and without financial or evangelistic motivation, chose to save Jews from the ongoing genocide during the Holocaust. Those recognized by Israel are honored in a section of Yad Vashem known as the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations. These Righteous individuals protected their Jewish neighbors at a time when prejudice, hostility and indifference prevailed.”
I shared with Jean my experiences at two American Holocaust museums—one in Washington, DC, and the other in Los Angeles. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is located on the National Mall, is American’s national institution for the documentation, study and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as America’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust. Since its dedication in 1993, the Museum has welcomed more than 40 million visitors, including more than 10 million school-age children. One of the most chilling and memorable exhibits for me in the museum was a display of thousands and thousands of shoes of those who died. While this is a powerful image for adults, the museum is vital in teaching children and adults the dangers of prejudice and hatred and the need to cultivate a sense of moral responsibility.
The Museum of Tolerance—Beit HaShoah (House of the Holocaust) is a multimedia museum in Los Angeles designed to examine racism and prejudice around the world with a strong focus on the history of the Holocaust. The Museum deals with atrocities and genocide on all continents, along with issues like bullying and hate crimes. Established in 1993, the museum welcomes about 350,000 visitors annually (before the pandemic), about a third of which are school-age children. In the Holocaust section of the museum, one learns about the 6 million Jews murdered, along with countless others, including homosexuals, Poles, gypsies, and the handicapped. To balance the statistics on an individual, human level, each visitor at the museum entrance receives a computer-generated card with the name and picture of a Jewish child. At the end of the museum experience, one deposits the card back into the computer, which then prints the card with the eventual destiny of the child. In my case, I received a card of an Italian Jewish boy … who perished in the Holocaust.
*Organized by the Cultural Institute in Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Italy in Los Angeles with the Holocaust Museum LA, the Museum of Tolerance Los Angeles, USC Shoah Foundation, AJC Los Angeles, ADL Los Angeles and the Milken Community School.