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Friday, October 24, 2014

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Girl meets cousin of bat mitzvah twin

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From left, Yaron Ashkenazi, executive director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem; Henri Levenheck, Lily Singer’s surviving cousin and a Holocaust survivor; Lilly Zepp, and Fran Sonshine, national chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.

TORONTO — Lilly Zepp a 12-year-old Toronto girl who celebrated her bat mitzvah this past fall, has almost nothing in common with Lily Singer.

Singer, born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1932, never got to celebrate her bat mitzvah.

There’s no trace of her or her family after 1944. Her surviving cousin, Henri Levenheck, who now lives in Toronto, only knows that sometime during the Holocaust, they were sent to Auschwitz and never returned.

But the two girls have one important thing that connects them: their first names.

In order to make her bat mitzvah celebration more meaningful, Zepp took part in the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem’s twinning program, which matches a bar or bat mitzvah child with a child of the same name or birthday who perished during the Holocaust. She was paired with Lily Singer.

This was also one of the very rare times that a relative of the Holocaust victim actually lives in the same city as his or her twin. So in a special ceremony in Toronto on Oct. 25, Zepp got to meet her twin’s cousin, Levenheck, who years ago submitted the names of all of his family members who were killed in the Holocaust to the Yad Vashem database of Holocaust victims.

“It’s a rebirth, a good feeling that she’s not forgotten,” said Levenheck, 84. “If not for me, then nobody would know she existed. Her whole family disappeared. Now, after 70 years, her name is remembered.”

Levenheck lived with his parents and two brothers in Strasbourg, France, at the time of the war. His uncle, Lily’s father, lived in Budapest. He doesn’t know much about what happened to them.

“I don’t know the circumstances, but I suppose like many Hungarian Jews, only some survived,” he said.

Through programs such as its twinning initiative, the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem ensures that the memories and stories of the Holocaust never die. Since the program’s inception more than 20 years ago, dozens of bar- and bat-mitzvah-aged children have been paired, or “twinned” with a child Holocaust victim.

“They’re really adopting the name and the memory and most of them are investing a lot of time and doing research on the Yad Vashem data to try and find out more information about the girl or boy they adopted,” said Yaron Ashkenazi, executive director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.

“When you’re speaking about six million [Jews killed in the Holocaust], it’s a very almost unbelievable phenomenon to understand,” he said. “But once you’re going to a specific person, a specific girl or boy, then it’s a completely different story. Suddenly you see a face.”

At the emotional ceremony last fall, Levenheck told Zepp about his family’s history, and Zepp was presented with a certificate of recognition for participating in this program. Together, they lit a candle in honour of Lily Singer’s memory.

“She’s the age of what my cousin’s granddaughter would be,” said Levenheck. “I want them to be remembered by somebody, somewhere.”

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