Holocaust Remembrance Day Commemoration at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance

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by Alisa Roberts

The Museum of Tolerance’s Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration was held on Monday April 28. The ceremony focused on the local community alongside older generations. The front rows of the packed auditorium held members of the Consular Corps from all around the world, numerous Holocaust survivors, and special guests, while the upper rows were filled with several classes from local high schools as well as community members.
Liebe Geft, Museum Director, announced that the theme of this year’s commemoration was Jews on the Edge, between annihilation and liberation, “For that indeed marked the situation for the Jews of 1944, exactly 70 years ago.” She went one to explain that the expression “on the edge,” is taken from a Nathan Alterman poem, and is meant to capture the double race the Jews of Europe were caught in that year: while the Allies and the Red Army were liberating more and more of Europe, what was left under the Nazi regime was rushing its remaining Jews into death marches and concentration camps. “It was a year in which everything depended upon the scales of time, and the Jews remaining in Europe were asking themselves … as Alterman wrote, ‘Which ending will come first?’”
The Jewish Community Children’s Choir, under the direction of Dr. Michelle Green Willner, opened the program. They performed their two songs, Chana Senesh’s My God, My God and an arrangement of Vehi Sheamda and Ani Ma’amin, beautifully and poignantly.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, spoke about the double language of zachor and al tishkach. “As we look around the world today,” he said, “we see that it’s not enough just to remember – zachor. Al tishkach: do not forget the survivors, do not forget the victimizers, do not forget the bystanders. Do not allow Holocaust history to be denied or rewritten.”
Rabbi Cooper then introduced the diplomats in attendance, including Dr. Bernd Fischer, Consul General for Germany; Mr. Giuseppe Perrone, Consul General for Italy; Mr. Jun Niimi , Consul General of Japan; Mr. Jean-Francois Lichtenstern, Consul General of Switzerland; and Mr Abdulla Ali Al-Saboosi, Consul General for the United Arab Emirates. There were also representatives from Austria, Estonia, Guinea, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Poland. Rabbi Cooper closed his remarks with a thought on another aspect of zachor: remembering the good, hakarat hatov.
David Segal, Consul General for Israel, then took the stage to present an award for Righteous Among the Nations. Mr. Segal spoke about the expulsions and exterminations in Hungary 70 years ago. “We should be clear in our minds about what was at stake then and what is at stake today,” he said. He then told the story of Emilia Krutova, a Slovakian woman with two young children, who hid 12 Jews in her attic for two years. Her son, Edward, accepted the award from Yad Vashem on his late mother’s behalf.
The many Holocaust survivors in attendance were then acknowledged. With their names displayed on the screen hanging over the stage, they stood to be recognized. Cantor Arik Wollheim followed this moment with the song Eyli Eyli.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean of the Wiesenthal Center, outlined the history of Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany. He described some of the atrocities committed under the Arrow Cross Party rule. “Let’s make no mistake about it,” he said. “The perpetrators were not gangsters who were part of a mob. They were ordinary people … [who] committed unspeakable crimes against humanity.” But he too had someone to remember for the good. He told the story of Pinchas Rosenbaum, a Hungarian Jew who posed as a high-ranking Arrow Cross officer in order to save hundreds of Jews and others. He closed with the sobering statistic that the anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary received a quarter of the vote in recent elections and emphasized how important it is to remember that it was not only the Nazis who perpetrated these crimes but their collaborators as well.
Special guest Bernd Elias was the final speaker. He and his wife traveled from Switzerland so that Mr. Elias could speak about his cousin, Anne Frank. He spoke movingly about human rights. “When will we learn, or rather, when will we put into practice what we have learned from the Holocaust?” He spoke of Anne’s experience, but focused on her ideals and her hope for the future. “Ultimately, commemoration has to mean action.”
Cantor Netanel Baram sang the memorial prayer, followed by a final song by the Jewish Community Children’s Choir, and Hatikvah. Leibe Geft’s last words to the audience were brief and simple, but encapsulated the event: “May we continue to learn from the past in order to shape a just, peaceful, and joyous future.”