Dimming the lights and speaking in somber tones, the Knesset hosted a Holocaust survivor and dozens of youths for a memorial event Tuesday night, as the country prepares to mark its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day starting Wednesday night.
The event, meant to evoke intimate living room talks popularized in Israel as Zikaron BaSalon (literally parlor remembrance), featured survivor Yosef Hershkovitz, who implored the mostly young crowd to safeguard what they have, speaking from his own experiences in the Holocaust.
“Take care of this country. You don’t know what this is to have it,” Hershkovitz told the audience at what was billed as the Knesset’s first-ever Zikaron BaSalon.
Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy hosted the talk, marking the Knesset’s first remembrance event of the week.
On Thursday, President of the German Bundestag Bärbel Bas will take part in “Every Person Has a Name,” the Knesset’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.
Bas will be the first senior German politician to come to Jerusalem to participate, coming just two months after Levy delivered the first Hebrew-language speech and recitation of the Kaddish — a prayer for the dead — to Germany’s legislature on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Zikaron BaSalon events have become popular around Israel in recent years. The initiative invites Holocaust survivors to share their stories in small settings, in recognition of the limited years left to hear direct testimony from individuals who survived the anti-Jewish genocide.
“The Zikaron Basalon project plays an important role in preserving evidence, and this is the last opportunity to hear stories from the survivors themselves and to pass them on for future generations and for all of humanity,” said Levy from the Knesset’s Chagall State Hall.
Levy implored them to remember, telling them: “You’re the future of Israel.”
Hershkovitz shared his story over the course of an hour, from being born in the then-Romanian town of Sighet and growing up as a playmate of Elie Wiesel, to his transport to and experience in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Nazi-annexed Poland, to his eventual rescue by American soldiers, to his move to Israel in 1947.
After arriving at Birkenau “hours before Shabbat,” the former yeshiva student Hershkovitz was quickly moved to Auschwitz, where he shared a block with “at least 1,000 other people.”
His first morning was a shock, and is still a vivid memory.
“At 5 a.m., there was a roll call. Always at 5 a.m. You stood there for three hours, without moving, without anything, nothing. If someone’s hat fell, if he moved, you wouldn’t want to be in his place.”
Hershkovitz also shared memories about a cruel kapo — a fellow prisoner assigned to supervise peers – and the pervasive lack of food.
“When you go somewhere, you don’t know if you’ll come back. You traveled, they threw you out of a train, and you didn’t know if and how you’d come back,” he said, connecting his appreciation for Israel with losing the life he knew before World War II.
When Hershkovitz, Levy, and their audience stood to sing the Israeli national anthem, Hershkovitz’s voice — still holding traces of his Romanian roots — carried Hatikva for the crowd.