By Robert R. Singer
CEO and Executive Vice President, World Jewish Congress
This piece was originally published in the Times of Israel on February 8, 2017
I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. My mother escaped the Nazi genocide of European Jewry by fleeing Bessarabia in 1941 and taking refuge in the village of Sretenka, in relatively tolerant Soviet Kyrgyzstan. But her parents, siblings, and countless relatives who remained behind were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine wiped out by the Nazis pushing east with the murderous Holocaust in their wake.
In the coming weeks, the Jewish community in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek will unveil a monument in Sretenka to honor the villagers and the other citizens of their region who embraced the Jewish refugees forced to flee fascist-occupied Eastern Europe – including my mother – giving them both a new, albeit temporary, home and a new sense of hope.
My mother was born, raised, and started her own family in Alexandreni, a small village with a Jewish population of more than 60 percent, near the Moldovan city of Bălți (Beltzy in Russian). In the summer of 1941, the Nazi-allied Fascist Romanian regime seized control of Bessarabia and began forcing Jews into ghettos. As the fascist troops took over, my grandparents packed their seven daughters and two grandchildren onto a drawn cart, and started making their way east toward Soviet-occupied territory. When the cart reached the Dniester River, my grandmother saw that their horse was not strong enough to continue to pull all of them. She knew there was no choice but to divide the family. She handed the reins to my mother and three of her sisters, along with my half-sister and cousin, and told them to continue without them. My grandmother, grandfather, and three other aunts promised to follow somehow.
This was the last time my mother saw her parents and sisters. On the onerous journey through southeastern Russia toward Kyrgyzstan, my half-sister and one of my aunts perished. My mother and her surviving relatives spent the remainder of the war in Sretenka, living in relative peace and harmony with their Kyrgyz neighbors. To this day, local villagers recall the high levels of tolerance and cooperation that existed in those difficult days, north and east of the bloodbath that had washed so much of Europe and the Soviet Union.
WJC CEO Robert Singer (right) meets with villagers in Sretenka, including some who lived there during the Holocaust.
After the war, my mother, whose first husband had been killed in battle as a soldier in the Red Army, moved to Ukraine, not far across the Bessarabian border from where she had been raised, and met and married my father. I was born in 1956 and raised in the city of Czernowitz, which had a sizable Jewish population. Anti-Semitism was rife in those years, and my family finally immigrated to Israel in 1972, after years of waiting for permission. My family had always embraced our Jewish identity, but only in Israel were we truly able to thrive as Jews. I have spent more than 40 years of my life in service to the Jewish people, including in the Israeli army and Prime Minister’s Office, as CEO and director general of World ORT (the largest Jewish educational and vocational organization) and now as CEO of the World Jewish Congress.
My parents rarely discussed their painful memories from the Holocaust, but it is precisely the persecution that they endured which drove me to dedicate my life to working in the service of the Jewish people.
Last year, I stood in Babi Yar at the 75th commemoration of the massacre in which more than 33,000 Jews were slaughtered on September 29-30, 1941. It was there in that Kyiv ravine, now an aesthetic city park, that so many innocent Jewish men, women, and children were shot to death for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish. As a Jew born in Ukraine 11 years after the end of the Shoah, I felt a surreal link to each and every one of the dead buried anonymously in their mass grave at Babi Yar. This atrocity must never be relegated to the past, to history.
The Holocaust was a genocide against the Jewish people, an attempt to destroy all of European Jewry, with millions of other “undesirable” people also wiped out along the way. Six million European Jews were intentionally murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, just for being Jewish, their fates all but sealed by this single identifying factor. Without exception, every Jew was a target, every Jew was an intended victim.
Since the Holocaust, we have seen anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred raise their ugly heads again. Despite our fervent promise of ‘Never Again,’ violent intolerance has not been eradicated. On the contrary. Massacres and genocides against different national, religious or ethnic groups have repeated themselves, over and over again. As I noted in my address at the commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre: “The world was silent 75 years ago. And it is silent now. Jews learned a very costly lesson at this pit. Jews learned they could not depend on the world to defend them from evil. They would have to defend themselves.”
This is the lesson that must be constantly taught and reiterated. We must not allow another situation in which Jews, or any other minorities for that matter, are forced to resign themselves to the understanding that the world will not defend them against evil, that they must defend themselves, utterly and inexorably alone.
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month, the World Jewish Congress launched an ambitious social media campaign to reach out to millions of people in the hopes of sharing the message that “We Remember”: We remember the millions of Jews who succumbed to the Nazi genocide and the millions of other victims who perished at these evil hands; we remember what happens when ordinary citizens give into unbridled hatred; and we remember that it could happen again. Beyond our expectations, we reached more than 120 million people – and millions shared our message.
I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. Thanks to the villagers who refused to let the violent hatred of their day take hold in their midst and welcomed my family, I am alive. It is my duty to do no less than they did. As World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said at Auschwitz two years ago, on the 70th anniversary of that Nazi death camp’s liberation, “World silence led to Auschwitz. World indifference led to Auschwitz. World anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz. Do not let this happen again.” Whenever we witness anti-Semitism or any other form of xenophobia anywhere in the world, we would do well to emulate the humanity and partnership extended by the decent people of Sretenka and throughout Kyrgyzstan to my mother and other Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. We must never be silent. We must never be indifferent. And we must always remember.
Preparing the monument honoring Kyrgyz citizens who welcomed Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The monument reads in Russian: “With deep gratitude to Kyrgyz people who during the Great Patriotic War sheltered Jewish refugees from the European regions of the USSR, and lived with them together in friendship and mutual assistance.” Below in Kyrgyz and Hebrew: “Thank you, friends”