Phoenix Holocaust Association: We must keep talking about it

By Abbie S. Fink

It can be hard to imagine what it must be like to be a survivor of the Holocaust. A dark time in U.S. history, 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, which took place between 1933 and 1945. Historians estimate that there were 1.5 million children among the 6 million who perished. 

But for the Phoenix Holocaust Association (PHA), which is located in Scottsdale, the Holocaust is more than just a part of history; it is a part of their personal history.

Started in the Valley more than 36 years ago, the Phoenix Holocaust Survivors Association, as it was known then, was a place for Holocaust survivors to connect with others with similar experiences. At its core then, as it is now, is recognizing the importance of talking about the Holocaust. And who better to share the stories than those that were there?

As a partnership of Holocaust survivors, their descendants and the larger community, the Phoenix Holocaust Association honors the memory and legacy of the survivors and victims, promotes awareness of the Holocaust, provides education of this and other genocides, and contributes to tikkun olam, repair of the world. As a unique, regional resource for Holocaust education and remembrance, PHA promotes human dignity by inspiring people to speak out and take action against hate, bigotry, intolerance and discrimination.

PHA board President Sheryl Bronkesh has been involved with the nonprofit organization for nearly 20 years. Bronkesh’s parents were Holocaust survivors, having met in a displaced persons’ camp following the war. 

“My parents moved to Arizona in 1991 and started going to Café Europa, one of the PHA programs for survivors,” Bronkesh says. “After my dad died, my mom continued to go, and I would occasionally join her.  The leadership at the time knew it was important to get the descendants of survivors involved to keep the organization going.”

And involved she became, retiring after a 45-year career in market research, to dedicate herself to the organization.

Over the years, PHA has expanded its focus to include not only survivors and their descendants but the grandchildren of survivors as well. 

“It is critically important to have an organization like PHA that, at its core, is for and about Holocaust survivors and their descendants,” says Janice Friebaum, vice president of the board of directors and a lifelong Holocaust researcher. “We are the singular local resource for eyewitness testimony of what occurred and for the testimony of eyewitnesses to the eyewitnesses.”

Friebaum’s father was a survivor, having lived through imprisonment at five concentration camps, two ghettos and three death marches.

“The Holocaust was always the ‘elephant in the room’ growing up,” Friebaum says. “My dad didn’t want to talk about it, but it shaped so much of my childhood.”

With a graduate degree in Holocaust Studies from University of Chicago, Friebaum had a mission to learn as much as she could about the Holocaust. She has taken trips to Poland and Germany conducting her own research and learning about her dad’s background and is working on a memoir. She spends considerable time in the community, giving Holocaust education presentations to schools and other organizations around the Valley.

And thanks to the efforts of many of PHA’s volunteers, Holocaust education will soon be mandatory in public schools.

In October 2020, the Arizona Board of Education decided to require students to receive instruction on the Holocaust at least twice during their secondary school career.

“That was a good first step,” Bronkesh says. “But we wanted something more. A codified Holocaust education law would clarify misconceptions that today’s students may have about World War II, such as how it started, who the perpetrators were and how many people were killed.”

In January, Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, introduced a bill that would require Arizona schools to teach students about the Holocaust at least twice from the seventh to the 12th grade. The bill was approved 59-0 and now is working its way through the Senate.

“We are thrilled that Rep. Hernandez has worked with us on this critically important piece of legislation,” Bronkesh says. “The ultimate goal is for students to become upstanders, not bystanders, so that when students see bigotry and hatred, they will understand what those ramifications could mean down the road.”

Included in this education bill will be the requirement to discuss other genocides in addition to the Holocaust.

Among the many programs hosted by PHA is a communitywide Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yom HaShoah is recognized each year in April or May, coinciding with the 27th Day of Nisan (on the Hebrew calendar) marking the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, when Jewish resistance fighters defied the Nazis and fought for freedom and dignity.

This year’s commemoration event will be held virtually at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 11.

“For the safety of our survivor community and our supporters, we are doing this event virtually,” says Eva Flaster, co-chair of this year’s event. “But we are working diligently to create the same sense of connectedness as if it were in person.”

This virtual event will feature remarks from Holocaust survivors, music and a memorial candle-lighting ceremony. Hernandez will present the keynote address, and additional participants will include Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami, Cantor Dannah Rubinstein of Congregation Or Tzion, and Shevet Shemesh Israeli Scouts.

In addition, the event will honor 54 Arizona survivors with PHA’s annual Shofar Zachor award. These survivors are a testament to resilience and give the world hope.

The event is free, but an RSVP is required. 

Flaster’s parents were survivors; she was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany, coming to the United States at just 18 months old.

“I revered my parents, knowing that they came through such a horrific time yet were able to love people, connect with people,” she said.  “It is amazing that a person can be treated so inhumanely yet still be open and kind to others.”

With a focus on education and ensuring generations to come remember the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned about hatred and indifference, prejudice and intolerance, the Phoenix Holocaust Association is steadfast in its goal to ensure that sometime, in hopefully the near future, the rallying cry of “never again” will be true.

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