From the beginning, the Remember a Child program, which matches children at the time of their bar or bat mitzvah with a child killed in the Holocaust before reaching the age of 13, sought to honor victims as more than names on a piece of paper.
The program began in the 1980s, when local Holocaust survivors wanted to honor their young relatives who had perished before reaching bar-mitzvah age. It slowly expanded and evolved; it began honoring victims found in the archives of the Jerusalem Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and in other sources, but Louise Lawrence-Israëls, a 74-year-old Holocaust survivor who ran the now-national program until recently, wanted to be sure that the program stayed true to its origins of honoring the victims as full people. Some 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Holocaust.
“These children all had normal lives, you know,” said Lawrence-Israëls, who often provided the bar or bat mitzvah child with research on the person they were honoring, in addition to a certificate with that person’s name.
“Some of them had Mickey Mouse ears, they had parties, they were sad, they went skiing, they went sledding, they had a life. And I want people to realize that. They were not just a name.”
Now, the Remember a Child program is being run through the organization Generation After by a child of Holocaust survivors, Barbara Brandys of Bethesda. Brandys is seeking to expand the program, but in doing so, she wants to be sure that it continues to honor victims as three-dimensional people.
“This program retrieves these names from just being on a registry,” said Brandys, who works for the National Institute of Health. “That’s how my aunts are left on this earth, just in a registry of the children who died. But we want to show that these are real people, and a birth certificate or a picture makes that even clearer.”
For both Brandys and Lawrence-Israëls, the program connects directly to their lives. Lawrence-Israëls was born in 1942 in the Netherlands and was hidden in an attic in Amsterdam during the war. Brandys’ parents, who were held in concentration camps, met in Poland after the war. Both women lost numerous family members in the Holocaust.
Sometimes this desire to provide the teenagers having their bar or bat mitzvah with more information can become a consuming process for Brandys, just as it was for Lawrence-Israëls.
In September, for example, Brandys received a request from Silver Spring resident Hagit Leibowitz, who wanted the bar mitzvah of her son Niv Leibowitz to honor Chanoch Sender, a relative of theirs who was murdered at a young age during the Holocaust.
Brandys worked with a woman in Poland who went through archives there and found Chanoch’s birth certificate. After further research, Brandys provided Niv with a copy of the certificate and information about Poznan, Poland, where the child lived. She also attended Niv’s bar mitzvah.
“You can imagine how when you start something how involved [the search for information] becomes,” said Lawrence-Israëls, who is a retired physiotherapist and works as a survivor volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “At a certain point you’re almost possessed because you find out a little bit and then you find more and more. It’s extremely time consuming, but it is also very uplifting.”
Brandys said that in the past two months she has sent out 30 certificates pairing teens and survivors.
She hopes that now that the program has a submission form on the website of Generation After, an organization that describes itself as “a gathering place for survivors, child survivors, children and grandchildren of the Shoah in the Greater Washington Metropolitan area,” she will be able to attract more attention and process more requests.
Lawrence-Israëls, who lives in Bethesda, said that in her busiest year running the program she received 120 requests for pairings from all over the country. The more requests the better, she said.
“The children that are named in the [bar or bat mitzvah] ceremonies will not be forgotten,” she said.
“That’s why it’s important for us to get as many names out as possible, even if we will never in our lifetimes have a million and a half requests,” she said.