Mason Hillel Hosts Holocaust Remembrance Day Speaker

Holocaust Survivor Alex Hershaft speaks to Mason about life in Nazi-occupied Poland


Monday, Jan. 26, marked 75 years since the liberation of the German death camp Auschwitz and is known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day and the meaning behind it, Mason Hillel invited Alex Hershaft, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, to speak to students about his life and experiences living under Nazi persecution.

The event took place in the Ridge, in a very intimate setting. Hershaft sat in a chair at the front of the room, while audience members huddled around him — some students even sat on the floor at his feet, as if he were their grandfather telling a story.

Hershaft was 5 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. Hershaft, his family and 400,000 other Jews were ordered to move into the Jewish section of Warsaw under the penalty of death. 

“We became inmates of what is known as the Warsaw ghetto which was a concentration camp meant to hold people until the gas chambers were built,” he explained.

While imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, the Jews watched as walls were built around them, topped with barbed wire. Hershaft spoke of the disease-ridden, overcrowded and hunger-stricken people of the ghetto. It is estimated that 80,000-100,000 people died due to poor conditions within the Warsaw ghetto. 

In late 1942, to escape the Treblinka roundups, Hershaft was smuggled out of the ghetto by his grandparent’s Russian maid. He went to live with his Christian aunt and was soon joined by his parents. Hershaft’s family received fake identity cards and lived in hiding for two and a half years.

Eventually, Hershaft’s family was separated by the Warsaw uprising. After the Russian liberation in February of 1945, his mother, having been released from a work camp, found Hershaft in a Polish orphanage and the two were reunited. Hershaft’s father never returned.

Hershaft told the tumultuous story of his family and surviving the Holocaust saying, “History plays games with our lives.”

Hershaft spoke for 30 minutes and then took questions from students  

When asked about why Holocaust Remembrance Day and the associative phrase “Never Again” are important, Hershaft responded, saying, “It was quite predictable … what many people don’t realize is that the Nazi Party was actually elected, by popular vote. Hitler was elected as Chancellor of Germany by popular vote. It was not a revolution; it was not a push. Germans thought that he would finally vindicate them”

Hershaft spoke about the beginning of Nazi persecution and attributed their reign of destruction to people’s inaction. 

“By 1933 it was too late … Hitler was so predictable, but not enough people were able to protect the civil liberties and religious privileges and that is what made it possible,” he recalled.. “And that’s the lesson, to fight like hell to protect our civil and religious liberties.” 

Student Involvement employee Tisheika Snow explained that she came to the event to honor the day of remembrance and spoke about the significance of events like this.

“I think it’s important because it was 75 years ago, but if you look at today’s climate you see a lot of the same hatred for people, you see a lot of the same energy from people,” she said. 

She continued, “I feel that if you don’t have events like these people forget that. The Holocaust didn’t happen overnight, it was a years-long process. I feel it is important to remember and take that information and share it, so that we know that we have a responsibility to not let it happen again.”

Roberto Malta, a Mason graduate with a degree in Global Affairs, heard about the event through Facebook. Malta had never attended an event hosted by Mason Hillel but was interested in listening to the speaker as well as learning more about the organization.

“His story was different than many you’ll hear, as it was about the ghettos and living undercover as a Catholic in the countryside, before being turned in to an orphanage and being reunited with his mother … it was fascinating, especially as it is not a side of the story we get to hear often,” Malta remarked.

After the war, Hershaft moved to America and went on to receive his Ph.D. in chemistry. Hershaft is now president of the Farm Animals Rights Movement (FARM) and works to protest the cruel conditions of the meat industry. FARM was the first U.S. organization to promote a vegan lifestyle and animal rights.