When 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Dr. Jacob Eisenbach paused momentarily during his keynote presentation to more than 1,000 people gathered at Cypress College, you could hear a pin drop — probably literally, though certainly figuratively. The audience of guests, employees, and students lining the bridge over the campus pond was so large that it spilled onto the grassy banks. Despite the size of the crowd, an awed silence permeated as the recently retired dentist told his incredible story of survival.
Dr. Eisenbach’s mother died before World War II and his father, sister, and younger brother were killed by the Nazis. His remaining brother was killed in an anti-Semitic attack while serving in the Polish armed forces following the War. But, the Orange County resident who delivered the keynote presentation at Cypress College’s first Yom HaShoah remembrance on May 4, has lived by the advice of his parents: “to never lose hope for a better tomorrow.”
It was that message that captivated the standing-room-only audience at Cypress College on Wednesday night, the start of the Yom HaShoah observance. He was among several Holocaust survivors in attendance at the event, which also featured a second story of survival by Sarah Schweitz, inspiring remarks from Christina Wurth, the Vice Consul of the German Consulate in Los Angeles, and stirring opening remarks by History Professor David Halahmy.
Yom HaShoah was sponsored by the campus Diversity Committee in response to a unique collection of portraits of Holocaust survivors created by Photography Department Chair Clifford Lester. Lester, Halahmy, and their colleague Maha Afra, whose students and members of her dance company performed an improvisational dance number the portraits displayed on a video screen, were the primary organizers of the event. The dance was accompanied by a live musical performance by faculty members Gary Gopar and Marcus McMillan.
The 90-minute event began at sundown adjacent to the campus pond. It was opened by History Professor Halahmy, whose stirring presentation was a message of inclusiveness. He noted the hate-filled deaths during the Armenian genocide and the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. Rabbi Heidi Cohen, of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, continued with the theme by discussing atrocities happening today in places such as Syria and Darfur. She later officiated over the candle-lighting ceremony featuring four survivors of the Holocaust and two children of survivors — one each for the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
Those participants included Cypress College maintenance employee Rick Van Beynen, who’s mother Rachel (Kops) Van Beynen was the first person in the family to be taken by the German SS at age 16. She ultimately survived 10 concentration camps — including a death march from Auschwitz. After the war, she learned that her mother, father, sister, brother, grandparents and 53 other family members had been exterminated.
Music at the event was spectacular. Aviella Winder, an 18-year-old Orange County resident whose appearances include Madison Square Garden and the House of Blues in Hollywood, performed a version of “One Day” by Matisyahu. Faculty members Gopar (on the trumpet) and McMillan (guitar) demonstrated their musical expertise both in accompanying the dance students and as guests arrived for the Yom HaShoah observance.
The event closed with a second dance number — Salaam, Shalom (A Song for Peace) — in which the performers moved through the audience offering olive branches in an extension of hope bridging cultures, religions, and generations. This performance also featured Afra’s students and members of her Long Beach-based dance company, Maha and Company; it was set to the song “Horchat Hai Calyptus” by Ishtar.
“It was an extraordinary event, one which I will never forget,” Cypress College President Dr. Bob Simpson said in an email to employees following the remembrance. Dr. Simpson chairs the campus’ Diversity Committee and he noted this event’s alignment with the College’s core value of inclusiveness. “I have never been so proud of the College for upholding our highest standards in the development and presentation of this event. This event demonstrated in both significance and quality what we can do when we are dedicated to a purpose and we work collaboratively as a team. To be able to do so in support of a cause and a message so powerful and so timely was truly gratifying.”
“I have been on the campus for 31 1/2 years and have never witnessed an event like this,” said Dave Wassenaar, Cypress College’s Dean of the Business and Computer Information Systems Division. He called the event “life-changing” and “historic.” A number of other long-time campus employees shared his assessment that this was both the best and largest educational event in the College’s nearly 50-year history.
Organizers anticipated up to 500 guests, but the numbers swelled beyond the 600+ available seats, thanks in part to media coverage by The Orange County Register previewing the remembrance event.
Video courtesy David Eisenbach. Open in YouTube for additional videos of Dr. Eisenbach.
Note: Additional images and video to come