Across the Twin Cities two weeks ago, people gathered in virtual living rooms as a part of Zikaron BaSalon, a Holocaust remembrance initiative that started in Israel and has been making its way across the U.S., including Minnesota, in recent years.
The Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations and JCRC partnered for two nights of the program, on April 5 and April 7. Zikaron BaSalon is intended as a community-driven social initiative, and anyone is free to host one in their living room and use the programming materials the organization provides. Zikaron BaSalon translates from Hebrew to mean “remembrance in the living room,” and in safer times, the event is meant to take place in hosts’ homes.
According to the initiative’s website, gatherings typically consist of three parts: testimony, often from a survivor or a descendent of one, or from a Holocaust expert; expression, where participants can share poetry, song, story, or prayer; and discussion.
At one local Zikaron BaSalon on Tuesday, April 5, every participant happened to be a second-generation survivor. Several were children of two survivors.
One of those participants was Adela Peskorz, whose mother and father both survived the Holocaust.
“It certainly was the context of much of my life,” Peskorz said of her parents’ backgrounds. “It’s like a shadow you always carry with you. And I’m sure I’m not the only child of survivors who has said this.”
The speaker at that gathering was Iris Tzafrir, also the daughter of two survivors. Tzafrir, who grew up in Israel and has lived in Minnesota for more than 20 years, talked about her experiences growing up, her parents’ stories, and her journey of discovering new family history.
Tzafrir has spoken frequently to local groups ever since her son, a sixth-grader at the time, signed her up to speak at his school, which came as a surprise to her. That same year, 2010, she traveled to Poland to follow her father’s footsteps on the Death March to Buchenwald and visit key locations in her family’s history.
At that point, Tzafrir said, she decided it was up to her to learn as much as she could about her family story and to remember her lost family members by sharing their stories with others.
“Both of those experiences catapulted me to a whole new place,” she said.
At one point while researching her family, Tzafrir contacted the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to try to find more information about her family members — and ended up finding out that not only had her father’s older sister survived the Shoah but also that she’d settled in Israel. For more than 30 years, Tzafrir’s aunt and her family had lived only two hours away. She and her father reunited with the surviving members of her aunt’s family in 2013.
“I am proud that we gave our father the gift of meeting his niece, nephew, and their children before his passing in 2015,” she said in her talk. “It was our departing blessing.”
Now, she’s working on a book, Touching the Trembling Places, about her research into her family history and her father’s life. She’s also in the process of translating her father’s poetry from Hebrew to English and writing about her and her siblings’ experiences growing up on a kibbutz as children of survivors.
Meanwhile, she continues to speak at schools, companies, and at programs like Zikaron BaSalon.
What sets Zikaron BaSalon apart from other engagements, she said, is the feeling of closeness that occurs in a small group setting where the audience can participate.
“I think what’s really wonderful about Zikaron BaSalon is that it’s more intimate,” Tzafrir said. “What’s really nice is that it’s maybe 10, 12 people, and you can really go around the room and share. There’s something very personal about it.”
Helen Siegel, who spoke at a different salon that week, shared a similar appreciation for the living-room approach. “I think the highlight for me was the intimacy of it,” she said. “You’re making eye contact in a very different way with individuals, yes, you’re in little boxes on the screen. But the notion of doing it in someone’s living room is really amazing.”
When it comes to the future of Zikaron BaSalon in the Twin Cities, some envision audiences that reflect different parts of the community, with the hope that the deeply personal stories of the Shoah will move and educate those who may not have felt that level of connection yet.
Peskorz hopes for gatherings of a variety of ages. As an educator, she understands that young people are eager and able to engage in moral and empathetic thought.
“I know sharing those stories, face to face, they leave an imprint. I think in particular they leave an imprint on the young,” Peskorz said.
“It’s good to speak with adults,” she said, “but there is no more important time to connect with people on that deep empathetic level when you’re most striving to learn what is possible in the realm of humanity and the human condition — there is no more important time than adolescence.”
Tzafrir shared a similar hope: “I would love for this event to also involve the community at large,” including young people, she said. “I feel like we need to have people from different generations.”
Including non-Jews and other community members, Siegel said, could also be a good way for Zikaron BaSalon to reach more people.
“I think it has a tremendous amount of potential, because, again, having it in somebody’s home, in many homes, where people will invite their neighbors who are not Jewish — I feel like then those messages, and the important history of it, will touch people in a very different way,” Siegel said.
It’s clear that the format of the event enhances the power of personal stories, even if the people who experienced it are no longer here to tell those stories themselves.
“They have no voice. We are their voices now,” Peskorz said.
To her, that duty means continuing a strong sense of justice in all parts of life.
“Never again means never again for anyone,” she said. “It just re-emphasizes that mandate, that responsibility, for tikkun olam. What my parents survived no one should have to experience.”
“How do you change attitudes? How do you change behaviors? It’s a complex thing,” said Russ Rubin, who hosted one of the salons last week. “Not too many people have epiphanies, they just get a little smarter, more knowledgeable and empathetic.”
“It’s about community engagement at the end of the day,” Tzafrir said. “It’s about telling our story and being interested in community stories.”
And stories can be a powerful vehicle of memory, education, and even justice.
“If there’s one thing I carried away from my father, it’s that sense of justice, justice shall you pursue,” Peskorz said. “It’s our responsibility as Jews, but it’s our particular responsibility for those of us who are in the survivor community to carry forward what is possible.”
Conversations like Zikaron BaSalon are an important part of that work, Peskorz said, because they offer something essentially human, something you can’t necessarily get from, say, reading a book.
“We were born to connect as human beings,” she said. “It’s our alchemy. It’s how we grow together.”
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