The following article is an edited question and answer with Brooklyn Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz.
JL – You are the son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States. As such, what is the most important thing your parents taught or imparted to you regarding their experience?
SC – When I was growing up, my parents would tell me stories that began in Demblin, Poland, where they met as children and became each other’s first and only love. This childhood ended the day everyone in Demblin was rounded up and put in cattle cars and sent to concentration or slave labor camps.
My mom and dad were sent to Czestochowa to a slave labor camp called Warta.
My mother and grandmother were in one barracks lined with bunk beds. My mother’s father was in the men’s barracks with my father and some members of his family. The night before the camp was liberated by the Russian army, my grandfather was taken away and sent to Buchenwald, never to be seen again.
Nobody would have blamed my parents for never talking about their experiences, but they believed it was the survivors’ responsibility to talk and to educate—to make sure those of us who weren’t there truly understand how horrific the consequences of anti-Semitism can be, and how history can and will repeat itself if we allow the memories of the Holocaust to fade.
JL – With a reported increase in anti- Semitic acts in your district and throughout the world, what do you see as your role in combating these horrific acts as an elected official in New York?
SC – Speaking out whenever and wherever a hate crime occurs is very important. So is taking care of our Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in my Assembly district.
What many people don’t realize is that of the 50,000 or so survivors currently living in the New York area, more than half live below the poverty line.
It is our obligation to ensure that every single one of these human beings, who have endured the most brutal acts of inhumanity, lives out his or her days in dignity—not in insolvency and isolation.
To that end, I hired a bilingual staff member to help Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union apply for compensation funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. After a number of Russian-speaking survivors in my district were denied benefits due to bureaucratic snafus, my office intervened. To advocate on behalf of these Russian-speaking Holocaust survivors, I met with a board member from the Claims Conference during my trip to Munich, as well as with a number of board members back here in the United States, in order to rectify the situation and to ensure that some small measure of justice is achieved.
JL – Your district office has a long- running competition for children to educate them about Yom Hashoah through art, music and other creative media. Where did the idea for this project originate?
SC – My parents were the inspiration. As a child, I would go into my parents’ bedroom to say goodnight but always asked to hear about their time during the Holocaust. It was my mother who always had a story, but both my parents reminded me that I had to tell my children and they were to tell their children about the horrors of the Jews during the war. It was these stories that shaped my being and are the reason I do as much as I do about the Holocaust.
JL – You have traveled personally and in an official capacity as a member of the New York State legislature across the globe on educational missions relating to the Holocaust. Is there a particular location or experience that had an impact on you?
SC – During a trip to Munich, Germany, I visited the site of the Dachau concentration camp where more than 32,000 Jews and non-Jews were killed. The memorial bears this inscription: “Dachau—the significance of this name will never be erased from German history. It stands for all concentration camps which the Nazis established in their territory.” It was deeply moving to be in this spot to commemorate all the people who were murdered and the survivors who somehow managed to retain their hope and transcend the evil they witnessed.
An experience that had deep personal meaning for me was visiting Demblin, Poland, to walk the same streets my parents walked, in the town where they met, a place that held so many happy memories for them until the Nazis came. I just wish they had been there to experience it with me.
JL – Your district is home to the Holocaust Memorial Park, which has a gathering each year to remember and honor the victims. Why is this type of memorial important?
SC – These memorials are permanent, visual reminders of what happens when bigotry is taken to the extreme, and they also give people a chance to pay tribute to those who perished. In the case of Holocaust Memorial Park, it’s located in a heavily traveled spot, in the very community where so many Holocaust survivors and second- and third-generation survivors live. It’s also right across the street from Bay Academy Junior High School, presenting a great teaching opportunity. Bay Academy is always an enthusiastic participant in my Holocaust Memorial Contest.
JL – What is your hope for future generations in Brooklyn and beyond on how best to continue remembering and learning from the Holocaust?
SC – Sadly, the hatred and bigotry that allowed the Holocaust to take place is still a recurrent theme in our so- called civilized society—not just targeting Jews, but other groups as well. Educating our younger generations is our best hope for the future. Learning about the Holocaust doesn’t just teach kids about the dangers of anti-Semitism. It teaches them about tolerance, compassion, the danger of blind obedience and the urgency of speaking out against the ethical misdeeds we witness in our daily lives.
JL – Is there a particular book, activity or experience that you can recommend to our readers to help honor and remember Yom Hashoah?
SC – For my Holocaust contest this year, I gave students the opportunity to respond to a quote from Elie Wiesel:
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
That quote is from Night, Wiesel’s book about his experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. You can’t help but be affected by Night. I’m always reminded of what my parents went through—having their childhood stolen from them and having to grow up so suddenly amid pain and misery. And they were the lucky ones.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz Represents South Brooklyn in the N.Y. Assembly