Holocaust survivor Tibor Spitz discusses his experiences at the recent panel talk and screening of the film We Remember: Songs of Survivors at Mount Saint Mary College on Sunday, October 15.
When greeting a friend (or even someone he’s never met), Tibor Spitz, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor and talented artist, prefers bear hugs over handshakes.
There were plenty of people to meet and hugs to go around when Spitz discussed his thoughts, experiences, and advice on Sunday, October 15 at Mount Saint Mary College.
We Remember: Songs of Survivors is a PBS documentary celebrating the lives of four Holocaust survivors, including Spitz. Screened before a panel talk with Spitz and the filmmakers at the Mount, We Remember follows four talented singer-songwriters from SageArts in the Hudson Valley. Through a program offered by Jewish Family Service of Orange County (JFS), they visited local Holocaust survivors to create original songs based on their conversations. The culminating concert was performed at the Mount’s Aquinas Hall Theatre in May of 2019.
Spitz told the more than 100 students, staff, and community members present that in order to make a better future, we must never forget the past.
“My most important advice: Don’t get fooled by words,” said Spitz. “If somebody tries to convince you to do evil with a very kind, nice voice and nice waving flags, even calling it humanity or democracy…be very critical of what you hear and look at the consequences of those speeches.”
Spitz was born in Slovakia in 1929. At 10 years old, he was kicked out of school and forced to wear a yellow star. When Slovakia was taken over, he and his family survived for more than 200 days hidden in a snowy forest. The experience would impact Spitz’s outlook for the rest of his life, he said.
“The human race – and not only the human race, but whatever is alive – is fighting for survival at the expense of others,” said Spitz. “[I learned] not to get emotional about it, not to get angry about it, not to be upset about it. Try to survive and help others who are weaker.”
He added, “I’m not really a proper person to answer questions about suffering, be
cause I refuse to suffer…don’t cry over a spilled milk; bring a cat. If you bring a cat you can do at least something positive about spilled milk.”
The panel talk also featured Tim Miller, Ilene Cutler, and Tim Guetterman from Big Chief Entertainment, the creators of the We Remember film; Colette Ruoff, founder and president of SageArts; Kelleigh McKenzie, a songwriter and performer who was part of the original Holocaust survivor song project; and Nicoletta Ronsini, codirector of JFS of Orange County. Pippa Carey, a local student, also presented her poem “A Letter to Emma Lazarus.”
SageArts works with elders in the community, such as the Holocaust survivors featured in We Remember, to both document their unique experiences and to share their wisdom with younger generations, Ruoff explained.
“I truly believe that life experience is valuable and that there’s sometimes missing connections between the generations,” she said. “Anything we can do to make it available in a way that’s compelling [is SageArts’ mission].”
After the panel talk, the Aquinas Hall Atrium hosted works of art reflecting the theme “Survive and Thrive” by Spitz and students living in Orange County. Organized by Janet Kass of JFS, this part of the event was a collaboration between JFS, the Orange County Human Rights Commission, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Stop the Hate Campaign, and more.
The film screening and panel talk were part of the Mount’s Samuel D. Affron Memorial Lecture Series. Jerome S. Affron, a former college trustee, established the Samuel D. Affron Memorial Lecture Series in honor of his father in 1982. A native of Kingston, Samuel D. Affron was deeply interested in education and served on the Board of Education in Beacon, N.Y. for years. He was a man of many talents and interests. He pursued a variety of careers, including an automobile dealership, and served bravely in the armed forces during World War I.
Watch the Panel Discussion: