Not to Forget: The Story of Harry Reiss and the Creation of the Rockland Center for Holocaust Studies
By Marion Reiss
“Lma’an yaidu dorotaichem – so that your generations may know” (Lev. 23:43) – the Torah commands that future generations be aware of what transpired to their ancestors. There are numerous mitzvot whose purpose is to remind the performer about the Exodus from Egypt, the slavery conditions the Jews endured, and the miraculous manner of the redemption. It is not only national events; the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve is a reminder of Yaakov’s epic battle with the mysterious night creature. These are examples of mandated remembrances, but there is also a call for individual expression. In Moshe’s final song of Ha’azinu he instructs the people: “She’al avicha v’yagedcha, zkanecha v’yomru loch – ask your father, he will tell you, your elders, they will relate it to you” (Deut. 32:7). Each person is to ask his elders about their story, and the elders should in turn relate it. This task is not always easy and in some generations it is of excruciating difficulty; yet it remains of paramount importance. In 1945 an indescribable and unparalleled Jewish tragedy ended and the task of rebuilding commenced. At the time, the idea of remembering and commemorating was far from most people’s minds.
Harry Reiss was born in the U.S. to parents who were not survivors, but he understood that it was essential to educate future generations about the horrors and tales of survival of the holocaust. In the first year in which Harry was involved in Holocaust education in the 1970’s, one survivor typically told him that (page 4): “Remembrance of the past is difficult if you are a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Because we don’t want to live in the past, we have not given it to our children. We don’t want to live it again. It’s the only way to survive.” Another survivor told him that she had never told her own son, who was then 17 years old, of her experiences in the Holocaust.
For many, many years holocaust commemoration was not on the agenda. Many individual survivors could not or did not want to talk about it. The Jewish community was preoccupied with reestablishing itself, building schools and establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Even Elie Wiesel did not immediately express his feelings and thoughts. For ten years after the war he refused to write about or discuss his wartime experiences. Once he started writing a torrent emerged and Wiesel produced a 900-page Yiddish memoir that was eventually shortened to his now famous book Night. But the world was not ready and he initially had trouble finding a publisher. Finally, in 1960, the English version debuted, but it barely sold 1,000 copies in the first 18 months.
To be fair, there were rare exceptions. Remarkably, the seeds for Yad Vashem were already planted in the middle of the war; in 1942, and in 1946, Yad Vashem established its offices. In 1953, the Knesset passed the Yad Vashem Law and in 1957 Yad Vashem opened. So too Beit Lohamei Haghetaot – The Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum became the first Holocaust museum founded by survivors when it was established in 1949. But those were the exception. And outside of Israel things moved much slower.
In the U.S. 30 years were to pass before national level commemorations would become commonplace. The 1978 NBC miniseries “Holocaust” was a watershed event. In that same year, President Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust which a year later recommended the establishment of a national Holocaust memorial museum in Washington, D.C. Ten years later President Reagan layed the cornerstone and the building finally opened to the public in 1993, almost 50 years after the end of WWII.