Gathering to honor Holocaust survivors and victims

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The family of local Holocaust survivor Otto Feuer last year donated the brown jacket (upper right) he wore while he survived six years in concentration camps to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Other artifacts were also to be included in a new exhibit.

Most Sunday nights, my husband and I chill out and get ready for the week ahead. But this Sunday night we’ll head to a local synagogue for an event called Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance.

In recent years, seats have filled up quickly in our South Jersey community. Somehow, not even the area’s largest spaces seem able to accommodate those who feel a need to be at this annual event.

We all have our reasons.

Being Jewish is one, but people of all faiths come.

This year, when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe, there is an urgency about remembering. As we recently told our grandchildren — all seven of them — they need to understand that this is not about “the other.” This is about us — our history, our legacy, our painful heritage.

My husband and I still marvel that, somehow, we were spared immediate links to the unspeakable horrors other families were not. A pure accident of fate.

I grew up in the generation that tended to try to forget. “It’s over,” my grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles would say. The theory seemed to be that talking about what had happened “over there” might cause more trouble.

Not until I took some modern world history courses in college did I truly understand the scope and breadth of this chapter in history. After that, I could not look away.

So much so that I did something life-altering. When I learned about Stephen Spielberg’s “Survivors of the Shoah,” his crusade to record the testimonies of every Holocaust survivor around the world, I signed on as a volunteer.

I was so naive to think that my journalism experience had prepared me for this work. Nothing could have. The survivors I interviewed are forever with me, and I attend Yom Hashoah every year to honor and remember them.

There was the Belgian rabbi who had been saved from sure death when a kind priest in a French town took him in, at great personal risk, and sheltered him.

One day, that priest had spoon-fed his hidden “guest” a steaming cup of soup because the rabbi was too weak to hold a spoon.

While the now-elderly rabbi could calmly recite the names of the dead — his parents, his aunts and uncles, his siblings — he could not stop weeping when he remembered that priest and his kindness.

I go to Yom Hashoah to honor four amazing sisters. They might have faced certain death when one of them dared to beg for the life of their youngest sister, who had been separated from them for instant extermination because she was too young and weak for the labor camps. They all survived.

The sister I interviewed for the Spielberg project was their “spokeswoman.” Decades from those horrible events, she told me that no, she was not angry at what had happened to her family. Anger and revenge, she insisted, do nothing to help the human race.

This year, I will go to Yom Hashoah in special memory of Erna Anolik, a remarkable lady from Cherry Hill. I met her through her son, my internist, and while she was not one of my Spielberg subjects, I came to know her well. Erna’s story of horror and sorrow had not poisoned her one bit. She was a woman of such grace and elegance — such nobility — that I hold her dear.

And when the local survivors — fewer every year — march into Sunday night’s ceremonies, I know I’ll sob because Erna is not there.

As the number of survivors dwindles, I feel more urgency to just be there as a statement of honor and respect.

For those who are living.

And just as surely, for those who are not.

Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown.  pinegander@aol.com
Yom Hashoah will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at Adath Emanu-El. 205 Elbo Lane, Mount Laurel. Admission is free.