After more than 33 years gathering together, you would think Holocaust Remembrance Day would feel less full of emotion.
But from the moment on May 1 that veterans’ groups marched into Bayonne City Hall carrying flags, immense feelings filled the chamber as several hundred people looked on. Students held lighted candles as the four remaining survivors of the Holocaust – Luba Woloski, Katie Berces, Regina Resnick, and Sally Friedman – were led in by loved ones.
The theme of this year’s ceremony was “An American Town Remembers,” which was reflected in a video production put together by Bayonne High School Teacher Sal Iannici and his students. The film included more than 90 people reciting poems and other reflections on the Holocaust and its impact.
“Love will overcome these atrocities, and love will be the enduring spirit.” – Jason O’Donnell
“If we wish to live and bequeath life to our offspring, if we believe we must pave the way to the future, then we must not forget,” said Father Gregory Perez of the Interfaith Clergy Association, quoting one of the great religious leaders of the past.
“By remembering them, we help keep them alive,” said Bishop Thomas Donato in his invocation.
Remembering is part of the answer to preventing it from happening again, said several other speakers that included rabbis and other members of the Jewish community.
“It is encumbered upon us and future generations to never forget the atrocities that occurred,” said Mayor Mark Smith.
While Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell said people had gathered to remember what happened, they were also gathered to prove that love can conquer hate.
“Love will overcome these atrocities, and love will be the enduring spirit,” he said.
One less survivor this year
This year’s event was made more solemn by the absence of Victor Friedman, who passed away last year – leaving one less survivor from those horrible deeds to testify to the events and to share his story with future generations in the hopes that such things would not happen again.
Sally Friedman, Victor’s wife and also a survivor of the Holocaust, was overwhelmed with grief as she settled into the front row of the Council Chambers – as if this place, this ceremony, these people, brought her husband’s memory back to her in a particularly poignant way.
Victor was born in Stromiec, a small town in east-central Poland in late 1920. He was one of three children. In 1939, while walking home, Victor was grabbed by the Gestapo – a vicious branch of the Nazi secret police. He learned later that his village had been eliminated that night. He lost his mother, father, sister, and brother.
After being liberated at the end of World War II, Victor went to Brooklyn. While attending school to learn English, he met his wife, Sally. They moved to Bayonne with their two children in 1960.
Victor did not tell his family about his experiences in the concentration camps, but focused on providing a better life for his wife and children. An experienced meat cutter from his home in Europe, he began working at a wholesale meat provision company, and eventually became a partner.
He was well-known for his humor and his ability to make other people laugh.
“This is a man who is probably known best for his sense of humor,” said Mayor Smith. “Think about the indomitable human spirit – for him to have a sense of humor after he had lived through what he lived through.”
He also served on the Holocaust Remembrance Day Committee for many years.
A decade old tradition
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.
Each year, members of the Bayonne community come together to sing, pray, and recall the horrors of the Jewish people and other victims. The ceremony has been held in the municipal building since 1979, part of a worldwide effort to remind the general public of the systematic slaughter of six million Jews and five million others.
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 1933, the mass murder began in March 1942.
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.
Upon entering Sunday’s 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 people in for transport to concentration and labor camps.
The gathering, however, was not one only of the Jewish community, but also one for city officials and other concerned citizens who had come to support and sympathize.
Laurie Sokol, who introduced the guests, said the event started under Mayor Dennis Collins and is to date the only such ceremony to be held in a municipal building.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.