Bearing Witness President Carli Zimelman gave the following speech at Kol Nidre services at Hillel on October 8.
Growing up, I attended a public school in Los Angeles. A fantastic school, but one area my school lacked in was teaching students about the Holocaust. I vividly remember the day, or should I say 10 minutes that we learned about the Holocaust. The 10 minutes consisted of a brief overview of Hitler and the Nazi regime embedded with incorrectly cited statistics about the number of Jews that were killed. He stated, “only 5 million Jews died,” which most of us know that count is at least at 6 million. This bothered me, so much so that I knew I wanted to learn more about the Holocaust, beyond the historical/statistical facts we all know from high school history classes, or should I say faulty facts in my case.
So when I got to college, I found the program for me. Bearing Witness, a UCLA student run organization, allows students to develop relationships with Holocaust survivors and hear their first-hand stories, adding color and meaning to the tragedy. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, each year, approximately 120 students participate in the program, which consists of meeting with Holocaust survivors over the length of Winter quarter and participating in
reflection sessions geared towards getting students to think about how the Holocaust relates to the world today. Last year, we had an ex-Neo Nazi come speak about how he transitioned from a white supremacist to a Jewish advocate. USC Shoah Foundation brought us their holographic technology of survivors, which took 10,000 hours of footage and created an algorithm for students to ask the hologram questions and it generates an answer as if the survivor was in the room.
I started as a participant my freshman year and with the Hillel’s encouragement to express my leadership, I joined the board and eventually became President. I wanted to empower other people to have the same experience as me, no matter their religious background. In fact, about 50% of our participants each year are not Jewish. My goal throughout my time on board has been for students to not only hear about the Holocaust first-hand, but also to understand that once liberation occurred, most people were displaced. Survivors’ resilience and strength
to start anew often goes untold and should be recognized. Now as President, through coordinating with the survivors, planning the program layout, working with UCLA professors and Jewish Family Services, and documenting the program through cinematography, I have not only gained professional skills, but I have also realized why it is so crucial that we bear witness to these testimonies. At the end of the program last year, one of the survivors, Sonia, said to me "Thank you!" And I said back, "No, no, no, thank you."
What Sonia explained to me is that we, everyone in this room right now, are the last generation to speak to these survivors face to face and it is our duty to carry on their legacies. Survivors are dwindling, but through this program thousands of Bearing Witness alumni are sharing their stories, memories, and experiences so that they will persist towards eternity. I am so incredibly grateful for UCLA Hillel because, as many students in the room can testify, the organization has provided me with the opportunity to grow as a leader and to fill the gap on my Jewish education. Thank you and wishing you all a sweet new year!