The City Hall Council Chambers went dark on April 11 as the projection screen turned on. At first, music played. Then the voice of a Bayonne High School student outlined what the audience of several hundred people would soon witness.
Basked in the glow of a dozen burning candles, grave faces stared up at the screen in anticipation – public officials, private citizens, military men, students and members of the Jewish community – all coming together for Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is an annual event usually held around the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising in 1943. The event keeps the memory of the horrors and the courageous acts of the Holocaust alive with the hopes of stopping such an event from happening again.
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.
Although the Jewish community recognizes the Holocaust as beginning with the rise of Adolph Hitler as the dictator of the Third Reich in 1932, the organized mass murder began in March 1942.
“The [remembrance] was started under Mayor Dennis Collins, who passed away earlier this year,” said Alan Apfelbaum, president of the United Jewish Federation of Bayonne.
This is the 32nd consecutive year Bayonne City Hall has hosted this ceremony. But this year seemed more poignant than other years as students from Bayonne High School got the opportunity to interview three Bayonne survivors of the Holocaust in an attempt to preserve their memories for future generations (see sidebar).
When the killing ended, those who survived were released from concentration camps and came out of hiding. Vowing to keep the memory alive for future generations, the Jewish community established Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a day to remember those that suffered, those that fought, and those that died during the worst act of mass genocide in modern history.
Upon entering the Bayonne event, each visitor was handed a program and a yellow Star of David, symbolic of the badges Nazis required Jewish people to wear after the start of WWII, stars that further isolated the Jewish population and eventually aided the Nazis in rounding in people to transport to concentration and labor camps.
The number of survivors has been shrinking over the years. Yet from the faces of the four survivors seated in the front row as the video came on, the horrors of those experiences have not dimmed.
Three of the survivors featured in the film – Luba Woloski, Katie Berces and Regina Resnick – along with a fourth survivor, Sally Friedman, stared up at the screen as the students asked questions and the women talked about how they were captured, how they lived, how they felt, and how they survived.
Woloski, Berces and Resnick each presented a slightly different perspective on the 20th century’s most horrific event, but none could fully answer why some people refuse to believe the events occurred.
Resnick later said she had refrained from going too deeply into the details of her experiences, although they remained a large part of her life. She said movies on the Holocaust sometimes bring back visions of her experiences. Berces said she gets more dreams now than when she was younger.
In some ways, this year’s video presentation served as a kind of shock therapy to a morally numb population beyond the Council Chambers, where people – even good people – live day-to-day lives in ignorance of such horrors still taking place in the world today.
County Executive Tom DeGise said that he rarely misses this event, adding it was extremely important to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
“This is something that is a duty for this generation,” he said. “It hopefully will continue on for another 132 years.”
Mayor Mark Smith said he was awed by the will and determination of the survivors.
Three memories of a living hell
Regina Resnick was 17 when the Holocaust started, and remembered doing everything normal kids do prior to the persecution. Her father was a manufacturer of leather goods. She was one of five siblings. Her mother and one brother were sent to the gas chambers the moment they arrived in the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. She and others went to work at a nearby labor camp, making powder for weapons. “That was the only place we worked,” she said.
Later, they were shipped to another camp, where she remembers seeing mounds of dead bodies.
She said she avoided thoughts of suicide because she did not want to make her siblings more miserable.
They got very little food and lost a lot of weight. Each morning and evening, the Nazis counted them. They removed sickly people who no one ever saw again.
“You were always afraid something was going to happen, that they were going to take you out,” she said. She slept on wooden benches with five other people.
She also remembered a previous January past when the Nazis moved them into Germany as the Russian armies got close.
“They put us in cattle cars and it was snowing and we were packed like sardines,” she said. “And we ate the snow from each other’s shoulders,” she said. “That’s how we had – you know – something to drink to keep our mouths hydrated.”
People died around her during the three or four days, so that by the time they reached the new camp, the cattle cars had a lot of room.
She said she knew people were being burned in the death camp.
“We saw the smoke going up right there – right near where we were in the concentration camp, they had the gas chambers right near there,” she said.
When her camp was liberated, she went home to find someone else living her house.
Katie Berces was 19 when the Nazis came for her.
“We didn’t know where they were taking us,” she said.
She, too, wound up in Auschwitz.
Because she had lived in Russia for 13 years and could speak Russian, Berces was able to survive. “Because when you speak more languages, you are more of a person,” she said. “That saved my life completely, the Russian language. We saw so many terrible things. Hair endless, pocketbooks from people taken. You can’t describe. You can’t describe, and a lot of people don’t believe it because it is impossible to believe such a thing. You know. They took us to the place where there was a big washroom. They cut our hair completely. They put on us a dress. They make a mark in the back with red things. I couldn’t believe I have no hair. It was a terrible feeling. I looked at my mother; I looked at my sister; I couldn’t believe it. You can’t recognize yourself.”
Berces, her sister, and her mother were eventually put on a line to die. Berces – who still can’t explain how she did it – jumped off the line, managing to rescue her mother and sister before they were killed.
Luba Woloski’s parents owned a fabric store. She and her sister attended grammar school when the Holocaust started.
She remembered the changes in law that would not allow her to walk on the sidewalk, forced her to wear a yellow star, and kept Jewish people from working as teachers or in government jobs.
Then one day, the Nazis gathered her and her family up.
“They collected us all in the beautiful synagogue and they told us to take some belongings, that they are going to take us to a ghetto. So they put us in columns of three, and they marched and we walked about a mile and a half, and they turned us into the forest.”
Ditches had been dug and death awaited them.
“People are screaming and yelling and children were crying,” she recalled.
She later learned that her father had pleaded for his life before he was shot, and her mother was executed a short time later.
“I saw some people are running, so I was running, too,” she said.
This saved her life, and she apparently met a farmer in a field who agreed to hide them in a stack of hay, and later in his house. She recounted seeing the Nazis passing the house, and still later, at a nearby pond where they were swimming. One Nazi officer even came into the house, but did not know she was Jewish. He even asked her to promise him a dance during an upcoming Christmas party.
She and her sister did reunite with two uncles briefly, but it was a sad moment when they realized that they were the only survivors left.
Later, she and her sister were discovered.
“I didn’t know what happened. I heard, ‘Get up! Get out! You Jew!’ ” and didn’t know what happened. And when I got up and got dressed, they threw me against the wall, they kicked me, and they dropped me into a cell. In the cell, I heard voices – it was pitch dark. I don’t know even who was sitting there.”
Like the other survivors, she was later liberated. – ADS