They bore witness to some of the most horrible atrocities known to humanity, and yet their message is one of hope. As they age, listening to their stories becomes more and more critical to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Being the son of Holocaust survivors, Clifford Lester understands the importance of documenting the experience of those who lived through the dark days of World War II in Europe. Formerly an advertising photographer and then the chair of the photography department at Cypress College, Lester began taking photographs of survivors and conducting interviews with them. Deciding that he wanted to do more, he created an evocative exhibit that is on display at the school and worked to create an annual community-wide multimedia program.
“When I returned from an event at Chapman University, saw how much students wished to meet with Holocaust survivors and figured I could build around my images of survivors, I called a meeting with our campus President Bob Simpson, and Public Information Officer Marc Posner, suggesting that we needed to do more at Cypress in this regard,” Lester, who is now retired, said. “Marc suggested that we do a Yom HaShoah event. Six weeks later we put on our first event. This year will be our fourth annual.”
Paul de Dios, then dean of counseling and now vice president of student services at Cypress College, had an open hallway in the student center and invited Lester to display his Holocaust survivor images there. This eventually led to a permanent exhibition and now a second home for the portraits in the President’s (Cypress Complex) Building.
Dr. Bob Simpson, Cypress College president at the time, asked Lester to present the idea of a Yom HaShoah event to the diversity committee that he chaired. As Lester explained, “Because the message of survivors has a lot to do with embracing diversity, this was a great fit. Ultimately, last year on opening day of classes, I was only the third person to receive the honor of the Cypress College Diversity Award for the work I have done.”
School officials anticipated that 75 to 100 people would attend the first event, which was planned in six weeks. More than 1,000 people were there. The event has been sustained because of the commitment of Lester and Dr. David Halahmy, Cypress College history professor, and because the interest genuinely exists for it in the community.
In addition to speakers —Holocaust survivors and their families—the program includes a tasteful musical program with interpretive singing and dancing and a special candle lighting ceremony. Each year, the stories have been told from a different perspective, enabling people to connect in different ways. Last year’s program also recognized American liberators, and that connected in a meaningful way with student veterans. In 2018 Cypress added a component for middle school students, because it connects to their curriculum, and the participants enjoyed the opportunity to meet several survivors.
At this year’s program, on Wednesday, April 24, at 7 PM, speakers will include Betty Cohen, Holocaust survivor who survived Birkenau; Lou Fogelman, Betty’s nephew, also a survivor; and Dr. William Kott, 97 years old, who was involved in liberating Buchenwald. According to Posner, “It really all comes down to the opportunity to hear the amazing stories of courage, strength, humility, forgiveness and hope that the survivors tell. People are amazed that those who survived unspeakable atrocity consistently exhibit such positivity.”
Lester and his brother have established the Ursula Lowenbach Foster Holocaust Memorial Scholarship, in memory of his mother, to inspire students to learn more about discrimination and adversity, so that through the voices of children, the world will never forget. Foster, a Holocaust survivor and former classmate of Anne Frank, fled Germany, moved to Amsterdam in 1938 and went into hiding with her family for two years. Instead of repressing the experience, she spent many years before her passing courageously doing just the opposite. “To honor her brother, Ernest, who was killed in Auschwitz, my mother showed everyone around her that life was something to be grateful for, something to celebrate,” Lester said.
JoAnna Schilling, Ph.D., President of Cypress College, summarized, “Yom Ha Shoah is a powerful reminder that although humans are capable of amazing acts of kindness, we are also able to commit great atrocities. A recent New York Times article stated that a majority of millennials weren’t sure what occurred during the Holocaust nor how many Jews perished. So a remembrance of what really happened, told by those who lived it, has never been more important. As these courageous survivors leave this earth, they are leaving behind the last living history of the Holocaust; it is a privilege to invite them to Cypress College to tell their stories.”
Cypress College -Yom HaShoah Program
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Lou Fogelman, who was only 14 months old when he and his parents were captured in an attempt to leave the Netherlands for Switzerland during World War II. “I had four sets of parents who loved me and helped me to survive.”
Other members of Fogelman’s family—seventeen people—went into hiding, including his aunt, Betty Cohen. Eventually, the rest of the family was captured, and Cohen was down to 67 pounds by the end of the war. Miraculously, she found and married her fiancé, and they, along with Lou, emigrated to the United States.
Today, there are more than 40 members of the extended family. Both Fogelman and Cohen speak about their experience whenever they get the chance.
“We’re always open about the Holocaust,” explained Fogelman. “It’s part of our DNA. It’s important to educate the world, so people don’t forget. We want to do our part to make people remember and not let it happen again.” For more info please visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cypress-college-yom-hashoah-holocaust-day-of-remembrance-tickets-58141878925?ref=eios
“Out of the Darkness, We Can All Create Light”
Campus Theatre, Cypress College
9200 Valley View, Cypress, CA 90630
ILENE SCHNEIDER, IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.