A 'tour' de force

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Attorneys from IP firm moved by visit to HMC

By Frankie Dame
For the Legal News

"Overwhelming, emotionally heart-wrenching, and thought-provoking," said John Halan, describing the visit of his firm, Brooks Kushman, to the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC) in Farmington Hills. His colleague, attorney William Abbatt, echoed the comments, calling the HMC "a vivid reminder that we should be grateful."

On January 25, more than 40 Brooks Kushman attorneys and staff members accompanied Senior U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman on a tour of the HMC. The organizer, Mark Cantor, first heard about HMC tours while listening to a presentation by Judge Friedman at the HMC's Annual Dinner in November.

Cantor said he was intrigued by Judge Friedman's story about taking the court's probation department to the HMC, and upon hearing that U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade also had arranged a tour last summer of the HMC made up Cantor's mind: Brooks Kushman had to go as well.

"So many people don't know the story of the Holocaust," Cantor said. "We have to learn about and remember it or it will fade from our collective memory; the more people who see it the better."

Cantor emphasized that this was not just a "Jewish thing," but a profound human experience for all. He was convinced that as many attorneys as possible should attend and before long 40 Brooks Kushman lawyers flooded the HMC's conference room, ready to learn and to remember.

After a brief introduction to the HMC, the tour began in a set of rooms dedicated to Jewish history. The guides, summarizing the many displays, recounted the tragic tale of European Jews during World War II. And as they led the groups past displays detailing pre-WWII political and social conditions in Europe, they outlined the many causes of the Holocaust. Attorney William Locricchio said the discussion helped him understand the complicated "historical background of the Holocaust."

Adjoining rooms showed the rise of Hitler and the construction of the dozens of concentration camps. They also included Nazi propaganda, descriptions of Jewish communities in each Nazi-occupied country, and biographies of Nazi leaders. One "extraordinary" tour guide, Michael Leibson-a former assistant United States attorney, used Hitler's rise and the Holocaust as a teaching moment for his audience of lawyers, said Cantor. Leibson explained these events from a "misuse of the law perspective [that] really hit home with respect to our obligations as lawyers."

The next displays depicted what life was like for Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe, including those who resisted the Third Reich. Moving past these and other stories, the visitors came to a replica of one of the railcars used to transport prisoners to concentration camps. Here, the guides recounted how the Nazis, in the dead of winter, would force 100 people into one wooden railcar, with a single bucket for a latrine. Often the railway journeys lasted for days. Denied food and water, many prisoners succumbed to hunger and thirst.

Brenda Rivard was deeply touched by the few minutes she spent standing in that railcar, later describing it as "one of the most moving parts [of the visit]."

Said Rivard: "Sometimes it's hard to appreciate what someone goes through until you actually stand in their shoes. That was nowhere near [their experience], but enough to feel that my life has been changed in some way by my visit."

Moving out of the railcar, the groups then walked through another replica-the front gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Inside were descriptions of death marches and life inside these camps. In the next room was an especially shocking display: massive screens playing video footage recorded by Allied troops who liberated the camps in the spring of 1945, and the gruesome, horrifying images they encountered.

Next came the post-war rooms. The panels contained several encouraging stories of Holocaust survivors, many of whom came to southeast Michigan after the war. The penultimate display was an inclined hallway with walls covered with accounts of heroes such as Irena Sendler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Sir Nicholas Winston, all of whom rescued thousands of Jews at great risk to themselves. Locricchio, executive director of Brooks Kushman, took encouragement from this display, calling it "a hopeful sign for mankind." Sangeeta G. Shah pointed to it as proof "that an individual can rise above it all and make a difference."

The attendees found the 90-minute tour informative and heart-rending. Helen Hansen said that the tour of the HMC answered "some of the lingering questions I've had for many years" about the Holocaust, while Gary Donohue described it as "quite sobering." Donohue also shared that he "was affected by the [HMC's] many displays, especially the names, faces, and individual stories, as well as the ghastly number of victims displayed in such stark terms at the beginning of the tour." Indeed, the HMC strongly emphasizes individuality-the personal stories of victims, survivors, and the countless Good Samaritans who stood tall during one of history's darkest eras.

There also was consensus about the high quality of the tour guides, Leibson and Vicki Adler, both of whom masterfully synthesized the HMC's wealth of information. Kathryn Nash stated: "I learned so much more through the [HMC]. It was like taking a walk through [history]." Shah added, "The tour brought history to life and served as a powerful reminder of what happens when seeds of hatred flourish."

The attorneys and staff from Brooks Kushman were treated to a special presentation at the end of their tour: Jim Berks told the story of his mother, Ilona Berks, a Holocaust survivor.

Berks interspersed his mother's biographical information with segments of a video interview conducted several years ago. A standout theme was his mother's selfless service to her fellow prisoners. Hearing a son speak so eloquently and reverently of his mother, and knowing that, in a very real way, his heart is scarred by the pain and sorrow of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen as hers was, gave the Berks presentation a special kind of authenticity. But his mother's story of overcoming the horrors of the Holocaust through courage, irrepressible optimism, and ceaselessly serving her fellow prisoners rang out with hope for those attending the tour.

The HMC tour was so moving that several attendees plan to go again. Hansen, who "relished every moment" there vowed to go back, stating, "I plan on making a return visit as I'm very much interested in seeing the Anne Frank exhibit." Nash said, "I am grateful to have been a part of witnessing the history through such a poignant presentation. I am excited to bring some of my family and friends to see the museum in the very near future." And Rivard, who had wanted to visit the Center for some time, stated, "I do want to go back so I can look at the details of the displays in more depth."

Donohue noted that HMC's proximity is a blessing: "I've been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and we're lucky to have such an impressive resource so close to us here in Michigan."

Cantor agreed, saying, "I would strongly recommend a visit. It is a sad, humbling and uplifting experience." Sandy Davis was more direct: "If you have never been - go!"

Anyone interested in seeing the HMC, individually or as part of a group, can reach out to Judge Friedman at (313) 234-5170-he "deeply encourages a visit" and would be delighted to help plan it.

Published: Fri, Feb 17, 2017

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