Remembering the unthinkable Jewish community remembers Holocaust and honors non-Jews who saved lives
by Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
May 25, 2006 | 2132 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The mournful sound of a violin filled Bayonne Municipal Council Chambers on April 25 as one by one people from the Jewish community in Bayonne took their turn lighting candles and placing them on the wooden Star of David assembled near the dais.

Performed by Maxwell Rudd, the music from Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" seemed to evoke a mood that consumed the more than 200 people who had come to Bayonne City Hall as a yearly day of remembrance of the Holocaust.

The Jewish community calls April 25 Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a day to remember those that suffered, those that fought, those that died during the worst act of mass genocide in modern history.

This year, Jews and gentiles gathered at City Hall to also commemorate those gentiles who had helped save the lives of Jews when the Nazis sought to exterminate them.

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of about six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Also targeted were gypsies, the handicapped, some Slavic people, communists, socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals. Yet of all those targeted, Jews suffered the most extreme loss of life with nearly two out of every three European Jews murdered by the end of World War II.

For 28 years, members of the Jewish community have come to City Hall to take part in these ceremonies, to recall the horrors of the Holocaust in order to make certain that they do not happen again.

In a year in which revisionist historians questioned whether the Holocaust had happened at all - with frightening statements made by the President of Iran - remembering seemed even more important.

At the door, organizers of the event handed out stick-on yellow stars, bearing the Jewish star and the word "remember," symbolic of the yellow star Nazi's forced Jews to wear as part of the persecution.

According to keynote speaker Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, said persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust followed the same pattern in every country: They were identified, stripped of rights, segregated or imprisoned, then slaughtered.

Those who helped save the Jews

As keynote speaker, Stahl brought to the ceremony a slightly different aspect of the Holocaust in recalling and honoring those gentiles who aided Jews during a reign of terror inflicted on people in more than 100 countries in a decade-long extermination.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) was founded in 1986 to fulfill the traditional Jewish commitment to hakarat hatov - the recognition of goodness. Many of the gentiles that helped the Jews escape slaughter are aging and living in poverty. The JFR provides monthly support to nearly 1,600 people in 28 countries to pay for food, housing and medical expenses.

But Stahl was concerned with the legacy of goodness and how few people around the world know about these people and their heroic efforts.

Those who hid Jews or helped them escape risked their own lives and the lives of their own families - paying a high price for the moral courage.

Stahl said most school students do not come into intimate contact with the history of the Holocaust until later in their education when they study "The Diary of Anne Frank," which is the story of a 13-year-old Jewish girl and her family who are forced into hiding by the Nazis during World War II.

"People think Anne Frank's story was unusual, but it was a very common experience," Stahl said, bemoaning the fact that while readers remember Anne and her family, no one could recall the Christian family that had provided them with a place to hide.

Christians, Protestants, even Muslims came to the aid of the Jewish population, she said, often risking everything in the effort. While most of the population of occupied Europe did nothing, these few heroes stepped forward to provide aid that kept many more Jews from being slaughtered. Some died for their role, others were punished severely, but few got the recognition they deserved.

While there are estimates of the number of people who aided Jews, Stahl said no one will ever know the actual number.

"There were too few," she said, noting, however, that the 22,000 names recognized by the State of Israel was far too low a figure.

During her talk, Stahl highlighted some of the heroes who, like Oscar Schindler as recorded in the Spielberg movie, risked themselves to save others, often strangers.

In July 1942, mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began. Polish citizens horrified at the Nazi persecution of Jews formed an underground organization to aid the Jews. Irena Sendler, head of the children's bureau, obtained documents that allowed her access to the ghetto, and through remarkably clever means successfully saved more than 2,500 children, and even though Sendler was eventually captured and tortured, she refused to tell the Nazis where she had hidden the children.

After Germany invaded France in May 1940, many Jews fled south seeking to enter Spain in order to get into Portugal from which they could ship out to more safe havens in the world. But Portugal ordered its consulates in France not to issue visas necessary to get them through Spain. This left thousands of refugees stranded in Southern France. After some soul searching, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, agreed to issue the visas defying his government's orders. His family assisted him in taking care of the elderly, poor and pregnant and eventually he helped them across the border and continued to help Jews escape to avoid concentration camps. He was later dismissed by his government and died in poverty in 1954.

Stahl said Jews survived in many Nazi-occupied places only because people on conscience lent their aid at the risk of death and the deaths of their families, and yet many of the names of these thousands are not nearly as well known as the names of the Nazi killers are.

Although Spielberg's movie managed to highlight one such person, many risked their lives during the Holocaust and part of the organization Stahl represents not only takes care of them in their old age, but also works to educate the public about the sacrifices and risks they took to help people they didn't even know to survive.

The community came together

The gathering, however, was not one only of the Jewish community, but of city officials and other concerned citizens who had come to share and sympathize.

The ceremonies in City Hall had a solemn yet reverent air as war veterans of Bayonne marched in bearing flags, followed by a candlelight processional of Bayonne synagogue students, who then sang "Hatikvah" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." This was followed by invocation, greetings, a proclamation by Mayor Joseph Doria naming the day "Holocaust Remembrance Day" in Bayonne as well as the presentation of a combined state Senate and Assembly proclamation presented by Doria in his role as state senator and Assemblymen Louis Manzo and Charles Epps, and resolution from the Hudson County Freeholders sponsored by Doreen DiDomenico, but delivered by DiDomenico's aide Henry Sanchez, who was among the veterans who survived the D-Day invasion of Normandy beach that eventually led to the overthrow of the Nazi regime.

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