Monday, April 12, 2010

The Story of Henry: A Holocaust Memory in honor of Yom HaShoah

I must confess that I interact differently with the Holocaust versus other Jewish people I know. One is that I don’t have any family who lived through or even died in the Holocaust – the closest I had was Rabbi Jacob Ott, a family friend who was a liberator of a concentration camp during World War II.

Second was my mother, who worked for the Survivors of the Shoah foundation from the time I was 13 until I turned 19. She was a cataloguer, and every day she watched people give their testimonies about the horrible things the Nazis had done. Many times, she would come home to our dinner table and tell a horrible story about some survivor and the hell that they were put through. By the time I was 16, I was completely desensitized to that time period in history.

I met survivors over that time, many of whom would never speak of their story again after their testimony with the Shoah foundation. After hearing the stories I had over the years, I could not begin to imagine the horrors. But there was always one story I remembered, and I could probably never forget. My mother gets tears in her eyes whenever we talk about him.

His name was Henry Rosmarin. He was a volunteer who worked at the Shoah foundation. He played the harmonica so simply and beautifully. It was this skill that saved his life during the Holocaust.

As a child in Poland, Henry learned to play the harmonica with great skill. He mastered many classical pieces. When he was in a concentration camp at 17, a commandant found out about Henry’s great talent. The officer ordered Henry to play for him, and Henry said he knew that if he didn’t play perfectly, he would be shot.

The officer was satisfied afterwards, and assigned him to kitchen duty. Every night, he would play music for the officers in their mess hall. This was what kept him fed and watered throughout the war.

He was liberated in May 1945, but this came with a fight – Henry had to survive two death marches before the Soviet armies found him. It was an almost impossible feat, but the truth was that sometimes things are meant to be. In this case, Henry was meant to live.

He was meant to marry his wife and have two sons. He was meant to work at the Shoah Foundation. And then he was meant to tell his story.

Henry would talk to anyone who would listen. He often spoke to high schools, and would play his harmonica. In fact, Beverly Hills High School students gave him a harmonica in thanks for his services. It was engraved: “To our adopted Grandpa.” He was written about in newspapers, had books written about his experience, and there is even a documentary from the Shoah foundation, called “Henry’s Harmonica.” (There's a video down below for those who want to see.)

Sadly, Henry died of cancer in 2001, at the age of 75. My mother attended the funeral, and she said it was staggering – there were thousands of people in attendance, from teenagers who were touched by his stories to people who were involved in the foundation itself. Steven Speilberg showed up late. He had to wait outside, as there was no room left in the chapel. And this was all for a man who simply played the harmonica to survive.

As much as I have problems with Yom HaShoah, I’d like to think that Henry still has something important to teach us after all this time, even though he has been gone for so many years.

Perhaps it’s that one person can, indeed, change the way people think, even if he seems small. Perhaps it’s the fact there is sin in silence when it comes to this. We should tell people about the horrors of the horrible things that go on in the world, whether it’s the terror in Darfur or the evils of Iran silencing those who are defiant by death. Or maybe it’s the power of music, whether it’s to save lives or to be able to tell a story that simple needs to be told, and can get too harsh if it’s told any other way.

All I know is that Henry felt that he had some responsibility to people in the world, as we all should. He realized that we need to live for something more, that we are here for a reason, and that we need to find that reason. Perhaps it’s to inspire or to educate, or maybe just to be there. Either way, Henry taught us to live.

So on Yom HaShoah (or even the day after – no one has cleared up for me when exactly it is), I encourage you all to live. Instead of dwelling in the horror of the past, take a look at the beauty of the present, and feel blessed. Meanwhile, fight for those around on you, because it’s an incredibly important part of life itself.

There doesn’t seem to be a recipe appropriate for today, but I am going to give you a link. It’s to my friend Christina’s blog, and she has some fabulous recipes for you, too – a merging of Filipino and Jewish foods. It’s The other is a video of Henry. It's a long video, but if you haven't seen him, it's well worth it. Please enjoy both!

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