Holocaust Survivor Urges University Community, ‘We Must Constantly Be Vigilant’
As part of the University of New Haven’s annual Holocaust Remembrance, the University community came together to honor the millions of individuals who were murdered during the Holocaust, while also learning about the importance of ethical behavior, as well as hope and vigilance.
April 27, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Dr. Leon Chameides was a child growing up in Poland, he vividly remembers hiding in a dark, smelly, hot cellar with his mother. They heard screams and occasional gunshots outside. He then remembers hearing a pounding on the door, which eventually gave in, and he and his mother were dragged from their hiding space.
Fearing the family would not survive, his father asked an archbishop to hide Chameides and his older brother. The archbishop did just that, and at age seven, Chameides was given a new name, religion, and family history. He was hidden in a monastery orphanage from 1942-1944, taking great care to conceal his true identity from everyone.
Ultimately surviving the Holocaust, Chameides came to the United States in 1949. He recently shared his story with the University community as part of the University’s 17th Annual Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony, which was held virtually this year.
“I believe our experience can teach both vigilance and hope,” said Chameides, a West Hartford, Conn. resident who is an active member of his local Jewish community. “If Germany could descend to such bestiality, we all can. That road is paved with small steps, each of which itself may be barely noticeable. We must constantly be vigilant.”
‘Remember where that can lead’
Born in Katowice, Poland in 1935, Chameides has fond memories of growing up there before the beginning of the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The keynote speaker of the University’s Holocaust Remembrance, Chameides shared photos of the apartment building that he, his parents, and his brother lived in, as well as the beautiful synagogue they attended.
“If you see a group dehumanized, remember where that can lead,” he said. “I want to remind everyone that Germany, not unlike our country, was a democratic, progressive society that made enormous contributions to civilization. Hitler was democratically elected.”
‘The actions of righteous individuals are worthy of recognition’
Held in concert with Holocaust observances around the world, the University’s Holocaust Remembrance solemnly honored the memory of the millions of individuals who were murdered during the Holocaust, including six million Jews and the millions of other victims of Nazism in Europe.
“Such an act of respect and remembrance is entirely in keeping with Jewish custom and with what is good and commendable in our general cultural tradition,” said Mario Gaboury, J.D., Ph.D., interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University. “Equally important is the opportunity it provides to instill in our students the clearest possible lessons on the importance of ethical behavior, particularly in the context of respect for human life and dignity in all of its manifest diversity.”
As part of the ceremony, students lit eight candles – six for the six million Jews and two others in recognition of others who were murdered and those who stepped forward to provide aid and comfort during the Holocaust at great risk to themselves and their families. Students also read a poem, “At My Bar Mitzvah and His,” in recognition of the 1.5 million children who were murdered.
“It is necessary to pay special tribute to those individuals who offered aid and assistance, who provided refuge or escape, all the while at great risk to themselves and their families,” said professor emeritus Ira Kleinfeld, who planned the event and served as master of ceremonies. “The actions of righteous individuals are worthy of recognition not only from a historical perspective, but, also, due to the tragic fact that the world has not changed sufficiently since the darkest days of the second world war.”
‘Our urgent need for vigilance and hope’
Two students who studied abroad at the University’s campus in Tuscany, Italy, with professor Matthew Schmidt, Ph.D., spoke about the Assisi Network, an underground network in Italy that was established by Catholic clergy that helped provide protection for Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Every year, the University’s Holocaust Remembrance enables students to learn about the ethical choices faced by those who have lived through the Holocaust, while cultivating empathy and understanding. As part of the event several members of the University community read the names of those who died who were relatives of members of the University community. The event concluded with the chanting of a Hebrew blessing in memory of those killed.
Chameides, the keynote speaker, concluded his remarks with a message about hope, as well as caution. “When you see people who have lost their families, their homeland, their possessions, who adopted new languages, new ways of life, and were nevertheless able to build a future and contribute to society, it shows you the inner strength we all have,” he said. “Our country’s recent experiences – both political and with COVID – have emphasized our urgent need for vigilance and hope.”