Holocaust survivor Rene Lichtman will share testimony at upcoming NEXTGen Detroit event.
On May 22, Jewish young adults will have a chance to meet and hear from local Holocaust survivor Rene Lichtman. Born in Paris, France, in 1937, Lichtman was the son of Polish Jews who fled the Lublin area of Poland in 1936 to escape the growing Nazi terror.
As part of ongoing NEXTGen Detroit programming, “Their Testimony. Our Responsibility” is intended for young adults ages 21 to 39. NEXTGen Detroit is part of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and focuses on building a vibrant community for young Jewish adults.
The free Zekelman Holocaust Center event will begin with light appetizers and drinks at 5:30 p.m. and will be followed by the program at 6 p.m., where Lichtman will share his firsthand account of hiding in France as a young child during World War II.
Hiding in Plain Sight
More than 80 years ago, Lichtman’s father joined the French army as the Nazi regime turned life in Europe upside down. He made an agreement with a Catholic family living just outside of Paris in the village of Le Vert Galant to care for young Rene should anything happen to him while fighting.
When his father was killed in battle and his mother, who didn’t have the means to care for him at the time, temporarily gave her son to the Catholic family, Lichtman was raised as a Catholic boy.
He grew up with a quiet, rural life outside of Paris, isolated from much of the war’s turmoil. He was even baptized at a young age and had little interaction with the Jewish community.
One day in June 1942, Lichtman’s mother came to visit his Catholic guardians. She planned to go into hiding in Paris as the Nazis moved closer to the city. It was the last Lichtman would see of his biological mother until after the war.
During the next three years, Lichtman’s identity remained a secret, even though the village where he lived was wrought with antisemitism. Following France’s liberation and the end of World War II, and reuniting with his biological mother, Lichtman struggled with his identity.
Up until that point, he never knew he was Jewish.
Oftentimes, he missed his guardians. He’d visit them on summer breaks from school in Paris between the years of 1945 and 1950. During one summer visit in 1950, Lichtman received a letter from his mother that she had remarried and the family would move to the United States.
Lichtman was reluctant but made the move shortly after. Since then, he’s come to embrace his Jewish identity and now regularly shares his experience as a Holocaust child survivor.
A Critical Time
As the generation of Holocaust survivors grows smaller and smaller, hearing firsthand accounts like Lichtman’s becomes of utmost importance. The NEXTGen Detroit event acknowledges that today’s generations may be the last to bear witness to these crucial testimonies.
“No matter how many years pass, studying the Holocaust will always matter,” says Zekelman Holocaust Center director of education Ruth Bergman. “Just as language, culture and customs built our foundation and our collective Jewish history, whether or not we have a direct connection to the Holocaust has also shaped the Jewish people.”
At the free Zekelman Holocaust Center event, participants will not only hear Lichtman’s story, but will also discuss what collective responsibility looks like and how young adults can use the history of the Holocaust to address the rise of antisemitism today.
“Now is a particularly urgent moment for Holocaust education,” Bergman says. “Unfortunately, the antisemitism we see today is not new. The themes and ideas used in contemporary anti-Jewish graffiti, speech and social media posts are the same as always.
“When we understand the nature of antisemitism, we can identify it when we see it and teach others to do the same,” she continues. “We can only hope to make a better future for ourselves and our children if we understand the past and its continuing impact on our lives.”
Jewish adults ages 21 to 39 can register for the event on JLive through May 21. Dietary laws will be observed. Attendees will also receive a pass for future admission into the museum. To register, visit jlive.app/events/4559.