Zachor: Remembrance and resistance
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Zachor: Remembrance and resistance

'They sang this song with rifles held in hand'

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Arline Duker and Rabbi John Krug read the names of victims as survivors and their descendants take the stage.

Remembrance and resistance were the themes Monday evening as hundreds came to mark the 27th annual observance of Yom HaShoah by the Jewish Community Council of Teaneck.

Esther Terner Raab of Vineland, the keynote speaker, told her riveting story of escape and survival. She was one of the planners of the breakout from the Sobibor death camp in Poland near the Soviet border on Oct. 14, 1943.

Of some 600 inmates, 300 broke out after killing 11 of the SS officers guarding the camp and a number of Ukrainian guards. Most of the escapees were recaptured or killed, but 46 survived the war. After the escape the Nazis closed the camp and planted it over with pine trees.

Planning for the escape gained steam with the arrival in the camp of Soviet prisoners of war. One, Alexander Pechersky, was particularly instrumental in planning the breakout. The escape was recounted in a book, “Escape from Sobibor,” and a 1988 movie of the same name.

Raab arrived at the camp in December of 1942 and was 21 at the time of the escape. The breakout itself was just the beginning of her tribulations on the run.

“My mother came to me in a dream,” Raab said, and told her to go to a certain barn. After two and a half weeks of furtive travel, she came to the barn belonging to a Ukrainian family friend, Stefan Marcynieuk, where she was miraculously reunited with her brother, Yidel, who she thought had been killed.

Marcynieuk hid the pair in his barn for nine months until the Soviet army came through on its drive west. “No question he saved our lives,” Raab said. Her son, Abe, said the families have stayed in touch and Marcynieuk’s descendants have visited the United States.

After the Russian army came through, Raab and her brother left the barn, but because of anti-Semitic violence by Poles in their hometown of Chelm, they could not stay. They trudged along behind the Russians, finally arriving in Berlin in 1945.

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Esther Terner Raab tells the gathering “We did not go like sheep.” photos by charles zusman

Addressing the group in the Teaneck High School auditorium, the frail but determined Raab, 88, recalled the words of her cousin, Leon Feldhender, one of the breakout organizers, telling the escapees that whoever survived should tell the story of what happened.

“Tonight I hear his words even louder,” she said. “I speak out not just for those who perished at Sobibor, but for all those who cannot speak for themselves.”

“We remember, but it’s not enough,” she said. “We must pass on our legacy to our children and grandchildren.”

“It’s our responsibility to tell our children, our grandchildren and others what happened,” she said. Her purpose, she said, is not to live in the past but to bring hope for the future.

“We did not go like sheep. We remember all those who fought,” she said.

With her husband, Irving, whom she married in Europe, Raab came to the United States and settled in Vineland, where to this day they own and operate a kosher poultry business. She drew a laugh when she said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if some of you ate” their chickens.

Raab has testified at Nazi war crime trials and, as a sidelight to her story, she was instrumental in the capture of Sobibor gas master Erich Bauer. She spotted him riding a carousel in Berlin.

The somber tone of the evening was punctuated with performances by Zalman Mlotek at the piano and his sons Avram, 22, and Elisha, 18, singing, mostly in Yiddish, songs relating to Jewish partisan resistance in Eastern Europe.

The senior Mlotek is artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater in New York City, which is celebrating its 94th year. He explained that the songs were written and sung during the Holocaust as a “spiritual resistance,” noting that cabarets, orchestras, and theater groups emerged in many of the ghettos.

Lizette Parker, deputy mayor of Teaneck, showed the audience a township proclamation designating May 1 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Survivors attending included Irene Frank of New Milford, who was born in Berlin and lived through a succession of concentration camps. “We are here in memory of our families; we will never forget,” she said.

Marlo Schacter Stern of Bergenfield, a native of Kovno in Lithuania, was there with her husband, Julius, a native of Cologne, Germany. “We are here so it never happens again,” she said. She lost her brother and father at Dachau.

Julius Stern left Germany before the war, escaped through Italy, and made his way to the then Palestine. He joined the underground and fought for the creation of the State of Israel, he said.

The main floor of the auditorium, which seats 774, was filled to capacity and there was spillover to the balcony. “It was an amazing turnout, especially in light of the terrible weather,” said Amy Elfman, one of the organizers. She said flight delays kept some people away.

There were some 70 Holocaust survivors at the event, said Elfman, and they were asked to stand and hold electric candles. Several hundred names of Holocaust victims related to Teaneck residents were read by Arline Duker and Rabbi John Krug as six survivors stood on stage with lit candles, along with two generations of their descendants.

The six were Vera Barta from Hungary, Rachel Gidali from Romania, Regina Hochsztein from Poland, Abe Klein from Poland, Malka Nir from Poland, and Melanie Holder Oelbaum from Austria.

Following a reception for survivors and their families, the formal program opened with the singing of Hatikvah and the Star-Spangled Banner, led by Meir Fox. The program ended with a reading of the 20th Psalm by Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and the memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim, led by Rabbi Yosef Adler of Cong. Rinat Yisrael.

Photos of Holocaust scenes were on display in the school’s lobby. The photos, on loan from the Holocaust Committee of Brooklyn, can be seen at the Teaneck Library through May.

The concluding song, by the Mloteks, was the “Hymn of the Partisans,” the words of a poem by Hirsh Glik of Vilnius set to music. Glik was killed in 1944. The audience was invited to sing along; the Yiddish text was on the program.

The last lines, in translation, are: “But a people amid crumbling walls did stand./They stood and sang this song with rifles held in hand.”

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