|Nachum Mester of Wanaque lights a candle as his daughter Zahava Trosten and his son Isaak look on. Charles Zusman|
Survivors, family and friends gathered Sunday at The Frisch School for a Holocaust memorial, but while they were physically in Paramus, their attention was focused thousands of miles away, on Auschwitz, where the annual March of the Living was taking place.
Originally the “march of death,” from Auschwitz to the death camp at Birkenau, now it’s the March of the Living, said Wallace Greene, a member of the Holocaust Committee of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the gathering’s sponsor. He noted that 10,000 youngsters take part, most (but not all) of them Jewish.
Unfortunately, bad weather in Poland prevented much of a planned live telecast from Auschwitz from getting through, but recorded speeches by Elie Wiesel, and then Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, were displayed on the large screen.
Some video did make it through, however, and the audience saw live images of youngsters gathered at Auschwitz, and a song performed by Dudu Fischer.
Meanwhile, the ceremony in Paramus was emotional in its own right. Youngsters in the audience carried 68 candles, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The candles were lined up on the stage in front of the screen displaying the images from Auschwitz. Song was provided by the Frisch Concert Choir under Scott Stein.
Survivors honored at the Paramus event were Lilly Veron of Fair Lawn, who was born in Hungary and survived the war in work camps in Vienna; Jack Rosen of Fair Lawn, born in Poland, who survived Auschwitz; and Stella Baum of Fort Lee, born in Poland, who survived the war hiding in the woods.
Also honored were Abe Klein of Fair Lawn, born in Poland, who survived a roundup in Lublin; Rae Nutkiewicz, born in Poland, who was taken by her mother to the Russian zone and survived the war in Siberia: and Nachum Mester of Wanaque, born in Moldova, under a bush, he said, after the train deporting his mother was bombed.
Alan Scharfstein, UJA-NNJ’s president, spoke of the event’s lasting message. “Our purpose is not just to tell the story,” he said, but also to “ensure that the story becomes part of the DNA of the Jewish people, and part of the collective DNA of all humanity.”
There is a long way to go to reach that goal, he said, but the annual remembrance is a step in that direction.
Greene spoke of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other acts of rebellion. “Jews did fight back,” he said. “Despite overwhelming odds … they fought back in many ways. By retaining their humanity and refusing to be dehumanized by the Nazis, by acts of kindness to one another, even in the camps, by acts of piety, by acts of nobility … even in the darkest holes of evil and horror that they experienced.”
“We are grateful to be living in America. We are grateful to the survivor community; they are our living witnesses,” he continued. “For the dead, and for the living, we too must be witnesses,” Greene said.
“We must guarantee that the next generation will know what happened,” he said, “We must make sure that every child learns about the Shoah” so that their children will know what happened when there are no longer any surviving witnesses.
David Machlis of Englewood, the vice chair of the International March of the Living, conceived the idea of the live telecast, Greene said. Co-chairs for the Paramus event were Rosalind Melzer and Allyn Michaelson.
Greene said the hope is for more youngsters to take part in the March for the Living, saying that the “powerful experience” strengthens their identity as Jews, bringing “a stronger feeling for Jewish continuity,” and he appealed for donations for the program.
Greene said that the non-Jewish participants in the March of the Living “are more likely to take part in social justice activities. They are more likely to take action against discrimination.”
Wiesel opened his pre-recorded address with a question: How can people, the Nazis, reach such depths? “We have learned that racism is stupid and anti-Semitism is a disgrace,” he said.
“Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness. We must never allow our past to become our children’s future.”
Hoenlein continued that thread. “We remember [in order] to spare future generations of the trials of the past,” he said. “Judaism puts an emphasis on life. We look back in order to look forward.”
He cited the lessons of the 1930s, when Nazism was on the rise, but said there are differences now – there is the State of Israel and there is an Israel Defense Forces. “We must determine our future course” and not let our enemies do so, he said.
However, he said, the “big lie” still works, and “messages of hate” now spread faster than in the ’30s. He cited the anti-Israel stance of Iran, the tragedy of Darfur, the recent murders of an Israeli family, and the fact that “the world is silent” in the face of these. “We have to speak out against indifference to us and to others,” he said.