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Meet me in St Louis

We laughed, we cried. We met old friends and made new ones. We hugged those we had only ever seen on Zoom. We shared our stories and our ideas for the future. And we danced!

I was honoured to attend the 32nd annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants in St Louis during the first weekend of November.

Due to Covid this was the first time in three years the conference had taken place, but even so the number of participants was relatively low compared to previous years.

While the majority of the attendees were from the US, there were also representatives from Israel, France and, of course, me from the UK. The incredibly full-programme, which in some sessions allowed a choice of up to six different talks, included plenary panels on the emotional impact of the pandemic and current world events on survivors from Charles Silow and Yonit Hoffman, and Jonathan Ornstein on how JCC Krakow is rebuilding a Jewish community and helping Ukrainians in the shadow of Auschwitz.

For the panel on Creative Ways of Remembrance I spoke about AJR’s wealth of resources including 80 Trees for 80 Years, Refugee Voices, My Story and the UK Holocaust map, while my colleague Danny was part of another panel on Starting and Maintaining Second, Third and Intergenerational Groups. Clinical psychologist Irit Felsen, who spoke at AJR’s Connecting Next Generations conference (which I curated) last year, ran a number of workshops and gave a plenary speech on Living Our Best Lives Now, which was a highlight of the conference for myself and many others.

To close the conference there was a panel discussion on ‘Where do we go from here?’ Representing the AJR, Danny (using the analogy of King Charles’ reign) said the 2Gs will have a short tenure and should have a succession plan in place ready to handover to the 3Gs. Dave Reckess, executive director of 3GNY (with whom AJR partnered for the online Eichmann Trial event during lockdown) said that we’re in the middle of an exciting 3G movement and we need to work quickly and together.

There were opportunities to continue discussions on the panel themes as all speakers stayed for the duration of the conference. We debated the past, present and future, and we ate, drank and danced together. We laughed together. As one speaker pointed out “We have our responsibility to continue remembering the Holocaust, but we also need joy in our lives. We mustn’t lose sight of ourselves.”

Additionally, we had the opportunity to see something of our host city. A bus tour took us to the St Louis Union Station, once the largest railway station in the country, now a hotel and entertainment complex: absolutely stunning and well-worth a visit. The Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center is another beautiful building we visited which was the

former United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. The interior reminded me of the Stadttempel in Vienna which I visited this summer.

We stopped at Washington University in St Louis to see the outdoor exhibition of portraits of Holocaust survivors, ‘Lest We Forget’ by Luigi Toscano. Incredibly, Luigi was there to greet us. He has photographed over 500 survivors from all over the world and is keen to bring the exhibition to London.

There was no time during the bus tour to stop at the Gateway Arch but our guide said it was worth seeing so I nipped down there during a break to go to the top of the tallest arch in the world.

At the end of the conference, after the tears and hugs and promises to meet again, we made a quick visit to the brand-new St Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum, which was due to open later that week. This impressive and beautifully-designed space features the lives of many of the 850 Holocaust survivors who settled in St Louis. Some of our group recognised family members in the exhibits which cover life before, during and after the war.

This was an unforgettable weekend. The 2023 conference will be held in Washington DC in late-August, and the 2024 conference will be somewhere in Europe. I would urge everyone to consider going along but, be warned… if you go once, you will want to go again every year!

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