Jewish Student Union Commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day with Speaker Karen Kirsten

Karen Kirsten, daughter of a Holocaust survivor and author of the book “Irena’s Gift,” presented on her family’s experience with the Holocaust in an event hosted by the Jewish Student Union (J.S.U.) on April 28. In her speech, Kirsten reflected on the people who risked their lives to protect her mother and her family during the Holocaust. 

The event was hosted as a part of the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. J.S.U. also hosted a trip to the New England Holocaust Memorial on April 30. In Friday’s event, Kirsten related the selflessness of these individuals to the importance of showing kindness and empathy towards others in the present day. She cautions against placing individuals on a binary, as binaries can create strong senses of exclusion and “othering.”

“Recently, I read a study on Polish people who saved children like my mother. Some of them, they said they didn’t see a Jewish child, they just saw a hungry child, or a crying child. They felt empathy for that child. I’m here talking to you today because a few people chose empathy and kindness over hate,” said Kirsten in her speech. She continued, “Today, we live in a country that divides people using binary terms, like Republican or Democrat, [and] left or right. Belonging to a group of people who think or look like us is a natural human instinct, but the thing I find is that, if you belong to a group, it makes you feel good, but everybody outside of that group is outside of the group. So that is exactly how othering happens.”

Kirsten continued by urging attendees to find connections with those who are different. By doing so, she believes that people can develop our empathy and deconstruct hatred.

“On behalf of my grandmother and family, I encourage you to actively seek out people who don’t agree with you, who think differently from you, or you just have nothing in common… Don’t talk about what you disagree on or what’s different, just talk about that one tiny thing that you have in common. I think, once we do that, we learn how to listen to other people. We learn to be empathetic. If we all do that, we can change our city, we can change our hate on campus, and we may even be able to change the world. But, one thing’s for sure, we will develop the capacity to save lives,” said Kirsten during her speech.

Ella Kowal ’25 attended Kirsten’s speech and highlighted Kirsten’s disconnection with her faith. Kowal believes that hearing a personal story about the Holocaust from someone who is not strongly connected with their faith grants a new perspective.

“I thought it was really interesting to basically hear someone who’s disconnected from her Jewish faith talk about her family during the Holocaust. Being someone of Jewish descent, most of the stories I’ve heard are centered around people who took on stronger feelings of their faith. I think it was really interesting to hear something new. It was really an incredible story. It was great how empowered she was to find out her story,” said Kowal.

Isa Matloff  ’24, Co-Head of J.S.U., compared Kirsten’s speech to speakers that the J.S.U. has hosted for previous Holocaust Remembrance Days. Matloff noted that a common sentiment among speakers is the importance of having a mindset of compassion instead of hatred.

“One of my biggest takeaways is how similar and yet how different some of the stories I hear from the Holocaust are. The man who we heard speak last year was an actual child during the Holocaust who survived. This woman was a child of survivors. They of course had very different experiences, but things that they both shared in their experiences were that they really wanted us to take away that you need compassion, you need empathy, and you really need to listen to the people around you and collaborate. The fact that both of them and most Holocaust-related speakers I’ve heard have said to come away with a message of love in your heart instead of hate is so important,” said Matloff.

Matloff also reflected on how little Andover discusses the Holocaust. Matloff believes that Kirsten’s speech is a valuable opportunity for Jewish students at Andover to have discussions regarding the Holocaust that they might not be having in other spaces on campus.

“We’ve been talking a little bit as the J.S.U. about how there’s not much Holocaust learning or education here at school. Having a separate event where we can invite community members to learn more and hear personal experiences and also Jewish students to reflect on their own families and the histories their own families might have had with the Holocaust is super important. Overall, I thought the event was very successful,” said Matloff.