The way Chabad Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn heard of Jona Laks is a story in and of itself.
His friend Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad rabbi in Moscow, happened to sit next to then Vice President Dick Cheney, his daughter Liz and his granddaughter at a ceremony in Krakow, Poland, that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
When Liz Cheney asked Berkowitz to explain to her daughter the significance of the event, he deferred, instead inviting Laks to share. She did not say much, opting instead to roll up her sleeve and show Katy the number that Nazis had tattooed on her arm. Laks invited the girl to touch it.
“This is what this is all about,” she said, according to Mendelsohn’s account. “Hitler numbered us. Hitler thought of us as being people who had no value other than a simple number.”
And that was it.
The moment stuck with Mendelsohn. That and the fact that Laks was one of very few twins to survive the “experiments” carried out by Josef Mengele, dubbed the “Angel of Death,” convinced him he had to find her to share her story.
“I heard the story of this woman and how she so thoughtfully found a way to be able to teach a young child what the Holocaust means — to communicate that to such a young child to me was just so beautiful,” Mendelsohn said. “I felt that I have to find a way to be able to bring her out.”
After a handful of calls and Google searches in English and Hebrew, Mendelsohn found Laks, who is 89, and convinced her to come to Jackson to share her story. She is set to do so at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Worth Hotel at an event organized by the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming.
Read more about Laks' story — and the message she brings — in this week's Scene section.