When Jodi Oldani opened her mail and saw photos of Israel and Jacob Byniecki staring up at her, she immediately started crying.
The Byniecki twins, born in France in 1932, were just 10 when they were killed in the Holocaust. Oldani thought of her own twins, Eli and Owen, who would soon be celebrating their b’nai mitzvah and counted her blessings.
“I’m lucky enough to have these boys,” she says. “So many parents were not so lucky.”
Eli and Owen Oldani were paired with Israel and Jacob through the Midwest Office of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Chain of Memory program, which matches bar and bat mitzvah students with one of the more than 1.5 million Jewish children under the age of 16 murdered during the Holocaust.
The program matches about 200 children a year, mainly in the Chicago area, and has become almost a rite of passage, volunteer Karen Hamity says.
Learning about the Holocaust through the eyes of a child who died has been a unique experience for Eli and Owen.
“It’s hard for me to understand that six million Jews could be killed just because they were Jewish,” Owen says. ™I think it’s very important to make sure these people’s memories survive.”
The Northbrook twins are counting down the days until their b’nai mitzvah next month. They plan to do more research on the Byniecki twins and give a speech about why they are being honored.
“Their memories will not be forgotten,” Eli says.
Jodi says the program has made the Holocaust feel more personal for her family.
“I’ve read about it and been to the museums, but to actually get a picture of these boys, it was just heartbreaking,” she says.
A voice for those who died
The Chain of Memory program began more than two decades ago when a local dad, Lou Weisbach, wanted to do something meaningful for his son’s bar mitzvah, says Jill Weinberg, Midwest regional director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Soon after, Holocaust survivor Margot Walton of Highland Park partnered with the museum to share her story with students and help with the matching program. Walton lost her parents in Auschwitz and became the head of her family as a teenager.
Weinberg says hearing Margot’s story was always a moving experience for students. To help, volunteers like Karen Hamity stepped in.
Hamity uses the book French Children of the Holocaust by Serge Klarsfeld to match children based on similar surnames or towns where their families are from to give a stronger connection.
“We call it a sacred book,” Hamity says. “The pages are threadbare and dog-eared. Children come into our office and see kids who look just like them. Some are holding a favorite stuffed animal or have a dog on a leash. They can look at this book and relate to these kids who have not had the opportunity to have a bar or bat mitzvah because they were killed.”
Over the years the program has spread via word of mouth, mainly through synagogues around the Chicago area, but requests for matches come from as far away as Israel or Germany.
The free, educational program doesn’t have to just be for children celebrating their bar and bat mitzvahs, however. The museum has matched victims with scout troops for community projects, with church groups and even matched a woman who wanted to remember a Holocaust victim as she celebrated her 50th birthday.
The idea of having one specific victim whose name and photo you can look at can make the giant tragedy of the Holocaust feel smaller and more real, officials says.
“I just want to give a voice to those who perished,” Hamity said.
‘Hold on to their memory’
Samantha Kaminsky, of Northbrook, took the program one step further and honored the woman who would be her great-aunt, who died in the Holocaust before she was 2. Kaminsky’s great-grandfather was a Holocaust survivor.
The family spent hours finding documents and getting them translated from German to try to understand the series of events that affected their ancestors.
“It was an interesting way of looking at your family history,” says Samantha’s father, Jeff. “The one way we can honor the memory of those who were killed during the Holocaust is to remember their lives and the horrors they faced.”
At her bat mitzvah in May, Samantha read a speech about her great-grandfather, Zelig Kalmanowitz, and his harrowing experience surviving the Buchenwald concentration camp. She spoke about his wife Leah and unnamed daughter, who did not survive.
“It showed me how lucky we are to be living in this time and place,” Samantha says. “I think people take it for granted. After learning about this I’m more aware and more awake to this and I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Annie Winnick will celebrate her bat mitzvah this month. She was matched with Ginette Wiesel, who was born in 1934 in Paris.
“It’s been important for her (Annie) to recognize the opportunities she’s had and how lucky she is,” her mom, Debbie Winnick, says.
Annie plans to have a picture of Ginette on the bima during her bat mitzvah. “We are the same age, she was just like me, but she never got to have this big fun moment in her life,” Annie says. “She should be able to be part of that even though she’s not still here. We’re lucky to be here today so it’s nice that I can share this with her.”
The museum says other students have handed out photos and information about their Chain of Memory “twins.” Some have left a chair empty for the child who could not be there.
As time moves farther away from the Holocaust and fewer survivors remain, participants in the Chain of Memory program say that carrying those stories forward becomes even more important.
“When the people pass away we don’t want their stories to pass away,” says Debbie Winnick of Highland Park. “We want to hold on to their memory so that it never happens again.”
Oldani says the program also teaches empathy.
“There are holocausts happening throughout our world and we need to pay attention,” she says. “It’s hard for kids to grasp it, it’s so unbelievable. As painful as it is to see pictures and read these stories, exposure is key. God forbid it happens again.”
Editor’s note: Margot Walton passed away in October. Memories of her and her amazing work will always live on.