On a day of gray skies and relentless rain, Jewish Atlanta remembered the Holocaust by focusing on the points of light illuminating the dark past.
The rain forced the 52nd annual Yom HaShoah service at the Memorial to the Six Million at Greenwood Cemetery under tents and drove the Marcus Jewish Community Center’s observance inside from the Besser Holocaust Memorial Garden. But Holocaust survivors, their families and the community as a whole turned out Sunday, April 23, to remember those lost, honor those who remain and celebrate the signs of Hitler’s failure to destroy the Jewish people.
“The Yom HaShoah commemoration is an ongoing announcement to the world that such inhumanity must stop. We must treat one another with justice and mercy, not with camps or weapons or destruction,” said Harold Kirtz, who chaired the Yom HaShoah committee organizing the Greenwood Cemetery event.
Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta President and CEO Eric Robbins said the event speaks to the strength of Atlanta’s Jewish community. He noted that Federation made the Holocaust Survivors Support Fund a priority in 2015 and that the fund has since raised more than $1.6 million to support the basic needs of 75 local survivors living at or below the poverty level.
About two dozen survivors lighted candles with the help of teens in NFTY at the observance, held under the auspices of Eternal Life-Hemshech, the Breman Museum and Federation.
“Thank G-d many found the strength and fortitude to transcend their silence” and tell the world what happened,” said Ahavath Achim Synagogue Rabbi Neil Sandler, who delivered the d’var Torah at Greenwood.
Hemshech President Karen Lansky Edlin said we should also be thankful to Atlanta’s survivors for the gift of the Memorial to the Six Million, the kind of public, easily accessible Holocaust monument few communities can boast. It was all built and paid for by survivors to have a place to mourn.
“If you’re lucky enough to encounter a survivor, please be sure to thank them for the gift they have left us all,” said Edlin, the daughter of survivors. She reminded the crowd that the number of survivors is dwindling.
For example, the memorial’s architect, survivor Ben Hirsch, was there to lead Kaddish, but the singing of “The Partisan Song,” long led by Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, then by his son Enoch Goodfriend, who died last year, passed to the next generation, Miriam and Avi Goodfriend.
Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer, the Israeli consul general to the Southeast, attended both ceremonies and spoke at Greenwood. She cited the need for the Jewish community to find partners in remembering the Holocaust and fighting hatred at a time when the number of survivors is declining and anti-Semitism is rising.
“Educate, educate and educate,” Shorer said. “Never forget. Never again. Now, more than ever, is that true.”
To that end, Kirtz said, 12 Jewish and non-Jewish schools in the Atlanta area painted stones with the names of child victims of the Holocaust. Survivors each received a stone when they lighted memorial candles.
“How do we really commemorate an event, a tragedy, as obscure, as horrific as the Shoah?” JCC Rabbi Brian Glusman said at the Dunwoody ceremony.
He mentioned efforts such as the Paperclip Project in Tennessee, an attempt to send out 6 million memorial email messages, a Philadelphia synagogue’s decision to sit in silence for 24 hours and Am Yisrael Chai’s Daffodil Project to plant 1.5 million daffodils to represent the number of children killed in the Holocaust.
“All of these attempts are powerful, and they’re praiseworthy, but they just don’t do enough,” Rabbi Glusman said. “They aren’t enough. They aren’t powerful enough. They aren’t sacred enough, not deep enough, to describe the immensity of what happened.”
Taking a cue from the mitzvah to remember the Exodus, not the suffering of slavery that preceded it, Rabbi Glusman emphasized the need to find the glimmers of light and sparks rising from the ashes.
“The challenge is to find meaningful ways of paying respects to the tragedy. But more important is what we do the rest of the year” to share goodness, light and beauty, he said.
“Irena’s Children” author Tilar Mazzeo, the keynote speaker at the JCC, highlighted some of those glimmers of light from one of the darkest places of World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, from the 2,500 children Irena Sendler and her resistance ring saved from the Nazis to the 14 pages of names of the people Sendler said helped make those escapes happen.
Mazzeo said those children didn’t just survive the war; they went on to have families, who have spread and grown exponentially. She said she has spoken to the great-grandchildren of Ala Golab-Grynberg, one of her book’s heroines, who did not survive the war. Her descendants don’t want publicity, the author said, but they continue to tell the stories and remember what happened in the ghetto and the Holocaust.
Each of those child escapes was a miracle, but as survivor Manuela Mendels Bornstein explained in her keynote address at the Greenwood ceremony, each of those miracles of survival was itself composed of multiple miracles.
Like a real-life version of “Dayenu,” Bornstein described a series of miracles that enabled her Dutch family, who had lived in Paris for a decade before the Germans conquered the French capital in June 1940, to escape beatings, to avoid detection of their illegal radio, to inexplicably stay safe at home during the roundup of 13,000 Paris-area Jews in two days in July 1942.
“We were home, and they did not come by,” she said. “To this day, we do not know why we were not arrested.”
When the family fled to the south of France at the end of July 1942, just days ahead of the Gestapo raid at their Paris apartment, they narrowly avoided capture at the train station when a neighboring train was searched for Jews. Bornstein’s parents were detained in the south of France, then released instead of being handed over to the Germans.
Her parents even had another child, her brother, Franklin. “The greatest miracle is that while four of us had left home, five of us were coming back” after the liberation of Paris, Bornstein said. “Not many Jewish families could say that.”