Honoring Holocaust Survivors at HBS

Samara Sone-Blank, Contributor

Samara Sone-Blank reports on the first time in recent memory when HBS commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day that commemorates the genocide of Jewish people that took place at the hands of the German Nazis and their collaborators from 1939 to 1945. Although Jews were the major victims, with more than six million murdered, the Nazis also persecuted millions of others including Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and others.  

This year, for the first time in recent HBS history, a school-wide MyTake session organized by my husband, Kyle Blank (MBA ’22), Cindy Spungin of the SAS, the Student Association, and the Jewish Student Association invited students to learn about the Holocaust from someone who witnessed and survived the barbarity and destruction of his people. Blank and I are both Jewish and grew up in North America learning about the Holocaust from a very young age so it was important for us to talk about our people’s history with the HBS community. To our astonishment, more than 400 students attended the event virtually. The HBS community was gifted the honor of listening to Aron Vegh, a Holocaust survivor who shared his devastating story with the attendees. 

Vegh was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia in 1930. The Second World War began in 1939 and Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March of that year. Vegh’s father was murdered at the hands of the Nazis and Aron’s entire family was deported to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. By the end of the war, more than 1.1 million people had been systematically slaughtered in Auschwitz including Vegh’s mother and three siblings. He was the sole survivor in his family and recalled his tragic experiences with students and faculty at HBS. 

Following Vegh’s emotional retelling, Matthew Kann (MBA ’22) shared his family’s story with the group. Kann’s father, Kurt Kann, survived the Holocaust and managed to flee Germany after the war had begun by escaping to the United States with his parents and brother. After enlisting in the U.S. Army and landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944), incredibly, Kann liberated survivors from the Bergen-Belsen death camp. After the war, he returned to America where he raised a family. 

Kann and I spoke after the event about what it meant to tell his father’s story. He stated that he was extremely proud to tell his father’s story and share with his new HBS community about his family’s resilience in one of humankind’s bleakest moments. 

In his retelling of the story, Kann mentioned that while his father was fortunate enough to have escaped Germany and evaded Nazi death camps, his formal education was cut short at just 11 years-old due to Jews being forbidden to attend school as of 1933. Because he was denied the opportunity for proper schooling, he cherished the importance of education and passed along this value to his son. Kann mentioned that his father would have been so proud to know that he now goes to HBS and was able to share his story with his fellow classmates. When he was in elementary school, his father would come to tell his story to the students, and now, thanks to the SA and JSA, Kann has been able to carry on his legacy at HBS. He added that he encourages everyone at HBS to share their stories in a format that allows for personal conversations, mentioning that he was met with “an outpouring of support from the community” and that people he had never met reached out to him afterward to tell him how moved they were by the event.  

People like Vegh and Kann who are willing to share their stories are extremely important to the Jewish community and the wider community at large. Unfortunately, our generation will be the last that is able to hear first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors about the terrors they faced. Over time, as the atrocities of the Holocaust become dim memories, a combination of desensitization and amnesia risks consigning the unique horror of the 20th century. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Schoen Consulting, one in five millennials has never heard of the Holocaust and one in three has never heard of Auschwitz. This statistic is less shocking (or more shocking depending on one’s perspective) when you take a look at the mandatory high-school curriculum in the United States. In only 17 states is Holocaust education part of the curriculum—meaning two-thirds of the population might not be learning anything or very little about what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Globally, 28 countries, including New Zealand, Iceland, and Thailand, ignore Holocaust completely in their school curricula. 

The Holocaust only ended 76 years ago yet the world is already forgetting. According to the Schoen Consulting study, 58% of Americans believe that the Holocaust—or something similar to it—could happen again. The reason for such concern is not unfounded—according to the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI, hate crimes against Jewish people within the United States are on the rise, with 2019 seeing the highest rate of hate crimes against Jews in the United States since tracking began in 1979. 

 I was fortunate enough to grow up in a community that emphasized the importance of Jewish education including Holocaust education. I heard Holocaust survivors speak in a formal setting at least once a year, visited Holocaust museums with youth groups, and read dozens of books about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, not everyone has had this opportunity. While I am dedicated to making sure my people’s tragic history is never forgotten, shouldn’t there be more open spaces, like the one held on January 27, for the future leaders of tomorrow to come together to discuss how to prevent atrocities like this from happening ever again?

Learning about the Holocaust in educational institutions is not the only way to ensure a tragedy of this scale never occurs again. Kann and I also got to talk about carrying this conversation forward and how best to do that. He put it beautifully stating that he believes “the key is a fundamental belief of multiculturalism.” He elaborated, saying that “people have to believe that there is a tangible, measurable benefit from putting people with a wide variety of personal and professional experiences in a room and having awkward and difficult conversations where everyone can benefit. When you come to HBS you have to believe that there is a spectrum of buy-in with people in HBS and the business community in general to the extent that we can continue to foster more buy-in and that will make conversations like this more meaningful and lead to a better and brighter future.” 

At a place like HBS, where one of the key benefits to the two years spent here is meeting people from all sorts of diverse backgrounds, we should be having these tough, uncomfortable conversations that help us know better for the future. HBS has done a good job at providing a forum for its students to discuss the lessons of history and the more people who come forward to share their stories, the more we all benefit. 

Samara Sone-Blank has called Israel home for the past seven years but will always be a proud Torontonian at heart. As a former pop-culture journalist for the largest Israeli newspaper Yedioth Achronot, she has come to HBS as the proud partner of Kyle Blank (MBA ’20) and is excited to be getting back to her journalist roots at the Harbus