Olivia Mattis knew that her father's family had escaped Brussels on May 10, 1940, the very day that the Nazis invaded the country. She knew that her mother had spent three years as a hidden child in Belgium.
Mattis, a musicologist and academic administrator at Stony Brook University, glanced at the yellow fabric Jewish star pinned on her dress — a purposefully startling reminder of the time when her great uncle was forced to wear this very symbol as a distinction of his lowly status.
She knew all of this history, but "it had no place in my own life," Mattis continued, speaking before more than 1,000 people gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 16th Street for the annual memorial to the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. "I was and am an American."
Then, a year ago, Mattis' father sent her an email urging her to see a French film about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese counsel in Bordeaux, France, who had rescued his family and some 30,000 others by issuing a flurry of visas against government orders.
Moved by her father's excitement, Mattis did some research and discovered that Sousa Mendes' grandson happened to live in Salt Lake City, Utah, where her parents also resided. She arranged for them to meet. Soon, she said, she couldn't stop thinking about Sousa Mendes.
"I felt like I had been run over by a train," recalled Mattis. "All of a sudden, my father's story became my story, and I suffered what he suffered."
Mattis found herself teaming up with Sousa Mendes' descendants to start a foundation in his honor. She began organizing memorial events to raise money to convert the deteriorated mansion where the Sousa Mendes family once lived in Portugal into a human rights museum and Holocaust memorial. Museums abroad are already requesting the chance to host a traveling exhibit about Sousa Mendes that the foundation put together, she said.
All of this, she added, is proof that it's still possible to make a difference even now, a generation past the direct impact of such a tragedy.
With fewer survivors left to tell their stories each year, carrying on their legacy is not a question of ability but obligation, said Sarita Gocial, who headed the event planning committee.
"All Jews must join in this effort, especially the youth," said Gocial.
As Rabbi Elisa Goldberg put it: "In Judaism, history is not an academic exercise, it is a way of life."
Local Jewish agencies have records of at least 300 survivors in the area. About 30 died last year.
Representing the loss of those voices, middle- and high school students who had met with Holocaust survivors earlier that morning filed past the stage to drop off white flowers as a speaker read the names of just a fraction of those who perished in the mass extermination. They circled around again and again; a group of adults eventually joining them to place floral wreaths at the base of sculptor Nathan Rapoport's Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs. The Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Philadelphia and the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia presented the statue to the city in 1964 and have marked Yom Hashoah, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council, with a ceremony at the site every year since.
While current and future generations don't have personal experiences of the Holocaust, Mattis said, there is a benefit to being more removed: "We can demand answers to questions that were too painful for our parents and grandparents to ask."
Likewise, she continued, today's Jews can demand that righteous rescuers like Sousa Mendes get the recognition they deserve.
In all, she went on, Sousa Mendes saved not just her father, but 11 other family members. If not for that, 40 members of her family would not be here today, she said. His visas also saved the co-creators of the "Curious George" children's books, Margret and Hans Augusto Rey; painter Salvador Dali; members of the Rothschild family and the Belgium Cabinet; and "thousands of other ordinary families — Jews, non-Jews, anyone who asked."
Yet to this day, she said, many people have never heard of his heroism. Reparations from the government were barely enough to buy back his property, which the family lost when the president stripped Sousa Mendes of his position and forbade him to earn a living.
Federation president Leonard Barrack spoke of the day of remembrance as a contrast of strength and fragility — "how quickly and senselessly millions of beautiful lives" were destroyed; yet "not only have we survived, but we have flourished."
Like the annual retelling of the Passover story, Barrack continued, Yom Hashoah reminds us that we must constantly pledge to prevent future acts of genocide. "The senseless assault of one human is an assault on us all," he said. "Only by remembering and talking about the past can we create a more vibrant future."