Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
One of my early memories is the moment my father told me that almost all of our family–his parents’ families–were murdered in the Holocaust.
My grandparents, Saul & Lonia, grew up in Lodz, Poland. They lived through the ghetto and the camps, the death marches, and found each other in an American army-operated displaced persons camp in Germany after the war. They fell in love, got married, and had their first child–my aunt Blanche–while still living in the camp. Eventually, with support from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, they came to America, arriving at Ellis Island and then welcomed into the Pittsburgh Jewish community where they began a new life. That’s when my dad was born.
My legal name is Jeremy K Manela; my Hebrew name is Jakir (pronounced Yakir), because I am named after my great-grandfather, Jakir Kompel, Lonia’s father. Jakir died in the gas chambers at Birkenau. Grandma survived, and somehow found the strength with Grandpa to live on, find love, build a family, and give with all her heart all her life.
I remember being at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Pittsburgh as a young child–we really loved that place. But that didn’t mean that my older sister, Jessica, and I loved Grandpa’s intense Passover seders. He said every word on every page, in Hebrew, at full speed. This from a man who would accost Orthodox Jews in Miami Beach and initiate Talmudic debates by challenging them to explain, “Where was G!d in the camps?!”
I remember years later when I was eight years old, walking into a room holding my mom’s hand, ready to say goodbye to Grandpa. He was on his deathbed, and I was scared. I’ll never forget the great big smile on his face in that moment. “Hi Jeremy!” he said, emanating love and joy in seeing me one last time.
We all became even closer with Grandma after Grandpa’s death. She was a huge part of my life throughout high school, college, and beyond. I thank G!d that she got to hold Lev, our oldest son (now turning 15), even if only for just a few months before she left us.
This family heritage makes me who I am. It deeply informs my perspective as I walk through the world. Nets, my wife, often points out when she sees me bringing a survivor-descendant’s perspective to all kinds of things. This is foundational for me, legacy and responsibility.
Last week, we held our Pesach retreat at Pearlstone for the first time since 2019. What a blessing to celebrate together with three-generation families, scholars, artists, teachers, musicians, children of all ages–such a deep sense of community. One night, our friend, Julie Tonti, organized an opportunity for the older children to sit, listen, and learn from Fred Katz, as he told us his story of growing up in Germany, escaping on the Kindertransport before his family was killed, and finding his way through the world as an orphan.
Fred is now 94 years old; he is a published author, professor, and genuine kind human being. As the holiday ended, Fred told us that his Pesach experience at Pearlstone had been absolutely transformative for him, “to celebrate with so much diversity alongside Orthodox Jews and so many others was eye opening, such a pleasure to see the joy and energy it generated.”
I told my boys, Lev and Shama (ages 14 and 12), that Fred’s testimony is precious, and that such testimony will live on in a different way by the time they are my age. We talk regularly about Grandma and Grandpa, and I’ve told them of my Yom HaShoah memories growing up at Hebrew School, gathering with all the grades in the sanctuary, sitting in silence, listening to a survivor tell their story.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
May our actions today, and every day, honor our ancestors and their memories.
And may we show the same dedication to our children’s futures as they showed to ours.
Zichronam Livracha. May Their Memories Be a Blessing.
Jakir Manela, CEO
Plant a Tree with JTree
If you are looking for a way to commemorate Yom HaShoah, consider planting a tree through JTree. Plant a tree in honor or memory of someone dear. JTree is a call and an invitation to every Jewish community to play its part in planting. Together, we can help heal the earth.