My dear friend Eli Rubenstein, makes a major impact on the world, and does so somewhat unassumingly. I had no idea he was compiling a book to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the March of the Living (The March), a program whose mandate it is to facilitate annual trips to Poland to learn about the Holocaust first hand and see the remains of the most dastardly places on earth -- concentration camps. Eli is the National Director of March of the Living Canada and Director of Education for March of the Living International.
A couple of months ago however a very elegant book titled, WITNESS: Passing the Torch of Holocaust Memory to New Generations (Witness) was published by Second Story Press, a Toronto based publishing house known for it's eclectic selection of publications. Indeed, on the front cover of this 130 page coffee-table style book projecting two sadly inquisitive participants in the March hovering over memorial candles set behind barb wire, it states: Compiled by Eli Rubenstein with March of the Living.
Upon reading the book, rooted in a touring exhibit launched at the United Nations, I was deeply proud of my friend and his life's commitment to Holocaust education, this time in the guise of an auspicious book replete with touching stories, photographs and thoughts from some high-profile Holocaust activist like Elie Wiesel, the who's who of international Survivors and reflections from the young people, of many faiths and backgrounds, "who have heard their stories and vowed to never let the world forget them".
Amazingly, the book's introduction includes a warm and supportive quote from the very busy, His Holiness, Pope Francis stating: "I ask you to convey to the organizers of the March of the Living my closeness to them and their mission. All the efforts for fighting in favor of life are praiseworthy and have to be supported without any kind of discrimination. For this reason I am very close to these initiatives, that are not only against death but also against the thousands of discriminatory phobias that enslave and kill."
The powerful aspect of Witness is that it stands on its own as a historical document and is an excellent, well laid out read for students of the Holocaust and those who are new to learning about this very complex time in history. Not only will the reader discover dozens of riveting pictures of the camps, Survivors and participants taken by respected photographers (such as the late Nir Bareket), they will also read concise essays about the Shoah (Hebrew, Holocaust), what lead up to it, where it took place, who resisted and who survived.
On pages 62 of Witness is a very touching picture of Pinchas Gutter, a Survivor with great courage, in a restored synagogue in the village of Tykocin in northeastern Poland, eyes closed and holding his hand to his heart as if chanting the stirring prayers of Kol Nidre. On the subsequent page the reader gets a sense of Mr. Gutter's soul, one that has managed to stay pure despite the cruelty he has seen and experienced during the Holocaust .
He states: "I always tell the young that I am carrying a torch of well-being and goodness. Despite the fact that it could have been a bitter one, I believe that my torch should be like the Olympic torch, a torch that brings goodwill to Earth." Mr. Gutter continues with his hopeful message telling a touching story of a Rwandan man, Moses, who joined him on one of the 'Marches' and the bond that developed between them.
The essay concludes with a quote from President Obama about Mr. Gutter, one he made at the 20th anniversary of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles on May 7, 2014. "I think of Pinchas Gutter, a man who lived through the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and survived the Majdanek death camp....." The president then quotes Mr. Gutter: 'I tell my story, he says, for the purpose of improving humanity, drop by drop by drop.'"
President Obama finishes his speech saying: "Those are good words for all of us to live by."
A unique interactive feature of the book allows readers to use their smart phone to scan the pictures of Holocaust figures who appear in the book and take them to excerpts of their filmed testimony housed at the USC Shoah Archives (created by Steven Spielberg) or the March of the Living websites.
Witness is respectful of those who perished, those who survived and the young people who now bear witness to the memory of the Holocaust. It is sad in content, appropriately so, but ever so hopeful about our ability to be good and bring peace to our world. I am proud of my friend's work and that of his colleagues, and strongly recommend this book to everyone as a way of remembering, and living up to the post-Holocaust commitment of 'Never Again'.