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BBYO Teens on Front Lines of the Last Survivor Generation

Read this story in the Jewish Journal

by Eitan Arom

Michele Rodri was 7 years old when a pair of Nazi storm troopers plucked her out of a game of hopscotch outside her Paris home.

Telling her story to a group of Southern California teens at Shabbat dinner on the evening of Nov. 6, Rodri lifted her plastic plate to demonstrate the ease with which they hoisted her into the back of a truck.

“I can only tell you that I grew up very quickly at that point,” she said.

Rodri’s childhood could hardly be more different from that of the young adults sitting around her in the mess hall of Camp Alonim kicking off a retreat for the Jewish youth organization BBYO.

The 160-some teens, who spent the weekend on the Simi Valley campus, are boisterously Jewish. After dinner, they loudly recited prayers peppered with joke lyrics picked up over years of practice. The 16 Holocaust survivors who joined them that night were infants when the war broke out and had had no such luxury.

These survivors were mostly old hands on the Los Angeles lecture circuit, although Samara Hutman, executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), noted a few new faces.

The events, a partnership between BBYO and LAMOTH, dropped the classroom setting in favor of more informal interaction. Survivors joined the high-schoolers for a challah bake, followed by dinner and a group discussion. Millennials of varying denominations hung out with Jews several generations apart from them.

Rodri’s dark recounting — “The kids that were sick, they wouldn’t bother with them, they would just shoot them” — brought from her audience mostly shocked silence and exclamations of “Oh my God!” but the silences were hardly awkward ones.

After her story and a dinner of boiled carrots and chicken drenched in barbecue sauce — camp food — a slight girl in a hoodie came over from another table just to give Rodri a hug. They had met earlier while braiding challah.

“See how they react?” Rodri said after her new friend walked away.

The event was a ritual closing of the circle between “the future of the Jewish people and the elders of the Jewish story,” Hutman said.

Dinner was followed by an induction service. Formalities were recited, during which teen leaders invoked the “power vested in us” to endow the survivors with honorary membership “to the BBYO family.”

Teens and nonagenarians threw their arms over each other’s shoulders for renditions of “Hinei Mah Tov” and “Shehecheyanu.”

The evening was an exercise in Holocaust memory that sought to impress something more powerful, though more fleeting, than stories recorded in books and videos. Some of the survivors have recorded their stories with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation; they play continuously on a wall of monitors at LAMOTH’s Pan Pacific Park campus.

But the teens came for something more than just a historical account: a face-to-face connection with a rapidly receding past.

One teen, Gillian Shapiro, compared the evening’s events with her visit this past summer to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

“Even that didn’t relate with seeing you guys here tonight,” she told a panel of survivors that convened after dinner.

Tenth-grader Liam Cohen had also traveled to Amsterdam, recalling that nobody was able to point him to the Holocaust museum, despite being directly in front of it.

“I think people should be taught and should know what that building is,” he told the audience, speaking into a microphone.

The event proceeded with a frank acknowledgement that these were among the last teens who might have the opportunity to interact with living Holocaust survivors.

“We’re going to leave you in not too long — not too short, I hope,” one survivor, Dana Schwartz, told the audience. “Where are you going?” another interrupted before allowing her to finish.

“I’m having a heck of a time here,” Schwartz said.

The teens recognize the responsibility assigned to them.

“Being a part of the last generation that will ever hear Holocaust survivors speak, we have to be active in that,” said Justin Willamson, one of the two Southern California presidents of BBYO.

During a group photo-op, a volunteer photographer brandished her iPhone and called out, “This one’s for Snapchat!”

The irony was palpable, at least for the teens who know how the app works. Picture messages sent out over the social media platform disappear almost as quickly as they are viewed — savored in the moment, and then gone.

But despite the shrieks and jeers of teenagers in their element, the ethos of the night was not lost on the seniors.

“We are thrilled to see your joy, your exuberance and your Jewishness,” Schwartz said. “We all thought we were the only ones to survive — and here you are.”

“The Jewish people have to stay together, because we lost 6 million people,” Rodri told her half-dozen dinner companions, emphasizing the importance of interacting with and ultimately marrying other Jews.

“I’m not saying you have to make 6 million more Jews,” she said, letting the sentence trail off.

As the night came to an end, Rodri gravitated back to Hutman, the museum director, with whom she’d gotten a ride earlier from Santa Monica through legendary Friday traffic on the 405 Freeway.

“You see? You walk in, you don’t know anybody,” she told Hutman. “You walk out, you have a ton of friends.”

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