by Mary Eshet
On January 26, the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 10 Holocaust survivors from the Charlotte community gathered in the warm atmosphere of Withers Hall at Queens University for an intimate dinner that honored and embraced them. The Withers House, a family home built in 1904 in Uptown Charlotte and later relocated to Selwyn Avenue, was the perfect spot to reflect the 2023 theme of Home and Belonging.
After dinner, the guests made their way across Selwyn Avenue to gather with 250 others in the Sandra Levine Theatre in the Sarah Gambrell Center for a powerful program featuring globally recognized speakers and extraordinary music.
Queens University President Dan Lugo welcomed the audience and spoke of how special the Greenspon Center is to Queens. He shared the Queens motto: “not to be served but to serve,” and called the Greenspon Center one of the most significant bridge builders between Queens and the world as they seek to make the world a better place.
As part of the program, the inaugural Upstander Award was presented by the center’s director, Rabbi Judy Schindler, to Rabbi Cytron-Walker of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem. In accepting the award, he spoke of antisemitism, and how we must all be prepared, teach, and invest in relationships. He reflected on his experience being held hostage with congregants in the Colleyville, Texas, synagogue where he previously served as rabbi.
The award comes with a stipend for Charlie to expand his work and with an exquisite ceramic plate fashioned by Gwen Orland of Rocky Knob Pottery. On it is a quote from Czech-born Israeli history and Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer: “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
Katie Cunningham of the Greenspon Center recognized the Holocaust survivors sitting in the front row by name, and Queens Hillel students delivered bouquets of sunflowers to each as Cunningham shared, “We honor our survivors this evening with sunflowers as symbols of positivity, peace and hope… Perhaps they are special because they always turn their faces toward the sun. Like our community survivors, they inspire us to do the same.”
Judy La Pietra, who joined the Greenspon Center as Assistant Director in August and led the effort to create the evening, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director Emeritus of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. As La Pietra described Smith’s background and accomplishments, it was clear he was the perfect speaker for the event titled “Combatting Hate: One Voice at Time.” Much of his life has been dedicated to preserving the voices that help generations remember.
The information provided prior to the program said Dr. Smith would share innovations in Holocaust education, including groundbreaking holographic technology. While that sounded interesting, it remained somewhat of an academic concept until he was able to share with the audience exactly what that means.
Smith recounted his own trip to Poland where he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and then Belzec, where he realized there was no one left to remember. He set out to do something about that by finding, interviewing and preserving the stories of tens of thousands of survivors.
On a big screen in the auditorium, he showed videos of a few of the people he and his team interviewed, with stories both painful and inspiring. Then he turned to a smaller screen – about the size of a full-length mirror you would find in a dressing room. With a couple of clicks, a life-size – and lifelike – image of an elderly Holocaust survivor appeared on the screen. “What is your name?” asked Smith.
“My name is Ben Lesser.”
“What can we learn from the Holocaust?”
“Stop the hatred. Hatred has to stop. The Holocaust didn’t start with the killing. It all started with hate… We have to be able to live side by side and appreciate our differences rather than hate.”
Smith reinforced this theme, noting that humans are 99.9% the same DNA, so we should celebrate the .1% that makes us different, but start focusing on what makes us the same.
For those in the room, it was a sort of “aha” experience – truly understanding the meaning of “interactive experience with holograms.”
The evening was punctuated with poignant musical pieces from Athena Strickland, the Queens Choral Union and Cantor Shira Lissek of Temple Israel that conveyed both tragedy and beauty. In under two hours, the Greenspon Center delivered an event that brought to life a new way to remember, interact with, and learn about the Holocaust, antisemitism, and hate – while at the same time infusing a persistent flame of hope.