The Jewish community calls this gathering 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.
As one of the worst storms in recent years battered the city of Bayonne with flood-drenching rain, members of the Bayonne Jewish community made their way in, donning yellow badges that bore the Star of David and the message: "Never forget 6 million."
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of about six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Although other groups were also targeted by the Nazis, 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.
This is the 29th year people have gathered in City Hall for these ceremonies, and the storm raging outside seemed to intensify the emotional energies inside.
This year's memorial service honored Aaron Kessel, a key member of the Bayonne Jewish community, who passed away last November.
Kessel, a native of Poland, lived most of his life in Jersey City and Bayonne. He was a member of the board of directors for the Jewish Community Center of Bayonne and the UJA Federal of Bayonne, and served as the treasure of the Congregation of Ohab Sholom Uptown in Bayonne.
Michel Kessel, Aaron's son, talked a little about his father during the ceremony.
"My father was a survivor of World War II and the Holocaust as a young child," he said, but noted that his father is being honored for work he did in as a member of the committee and in the community at large. "When he was a child, he went through a lot, but he never really spoke to our family about it."
During that time as a child, Aaron watched members of his family killed, and suffered from lack of food and shelter.
"My mother and his family really understood that and what it was like," Michael Kessel said, and this past experience explained some of Aaron's attitudes about life, and his fear that it could happen again.
"That fear, I think, made my father what he was," he said.
But Aaron apparently wanted his family to learn from the past, not just for themselves, but to make the world a better place and help others.
"I never understood how he could care so much for other people and not so much for himself," Michael said. "He taught us whatever happens to anyone comes back and that prejudice against one person is a prejudice against all. He really meant that. I guess as a young child, I never understood that."
He said when his father passed away many of the lessons resurfaced, and in a way, Aaron's death put the Holocaust into perspective for him.
"You take the pain you felt on that one day for that one person and multiply it by six million," he said.
An eerie premonition
No one could have known that within 24 hours, echoes of the Holocaust would reverberate worldwide as a 76-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu was shot while protecting his students from a gunman at Virginia Tech.
Librescu is believed to have saved the lives of a number of students by using his body to barricade a classroom door before Cho Seung-Hui, a student who killed 32 students in a deadly rampage before eventually shooting himself, gunned him down.
Despite the Jewish theme of the event, leaders from a variety of faiths attended and spoke, each railing against the horrors of acts such as those in the 70-year-old Holocaust and cautioning against the potential for such events to occur again, as if in their speeches they saw trends in the air that predicted the slaughter in Virginia Tech the next day.
Msgr. Edward Matash, Father George Greiss and others spoke about the sadness of such events, and the need for people to stand up for those who are picked on and oppressed.
"This is an opportunity to side with those victims of prejudice," Msgr. Matash said. "This is the time to stand with one another and make a difference."
Father Greiss said, "God reminds us to come together and to reach out and to remember."
Mayor Joseph Doria, who also attended with most members of the City Council, as well as Freeholder Doreen DiDomineco and Assemblyman Louis Manzo, talked about the need to remember, and noted that Bayonne was perhaps one of the few, if not the only, municipalities in the state or country that allowed its municipal hall to be used for these annual ceremonies.
"Everyone's life is precious and we must protect everyone," he said. "It is easy to stereotype and not realize that all human beings are loved by God."
A film depicting death camps
A special documentary film created by Bayonne High School Sophomore Mark Squiteri and Italian Language Teacher Pasquale DiIorio also marked this year's ceremonies.
This was inspired by a film by Roberto Benigni shown in the high school last year. DiIorio, whose grandfather was a victim of the Nazis, decided to do an educational film project. The result was a 12-minue video called "Mai Biu" (Never Again) which was viewed at the Holocaust ceremony on April 15.
In the dark, you could not see the faces of the crowd that had assembled in the chambers, but you could hear them breathe - slow gasps of perhaps outrage and pain as images of Auschwitz rose and faded from the movie screen.
Perhaps most telling were the faces of four death camp survivors seated in the front row, all of whom looked very somber when the film ended and the lights rose. Victor Friedman, one of these four, staggered out a few moments after the conclusion of the events, his eyes glazed and his expression grim, nodding at those around him like a man who has just come back from a journey through hell.