By Michelle Sartor
Every April, the Jewish community in the United States and Israel observes Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, to commemorate those lost during the Holocaust and recognize the survivors. This year, Yom HaShoah falls on April 19, with the official state of New Jersey commemoration scheduled for Tuesday in Northfield and another unique ceremony with Torahs that survived the Holocaust in Princeton April 22.
In Hebrew, Yom HaShoah means day of the Holocaust and the remembrance is meant to fall on or near the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began April 19, 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest revolt by one group of Jews during the Holocaust, fighting against German forces in Poland who were trying to transport them to Treblinka extermination camp. The uprising was ultimately unsuccessful and ended May 16, 1943.
Yom HaShoah is meant to remember the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust, as well as the survivors. The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education is instrumental in commemoration ceremonies. It co-sponsors the official state remembrance with the governor’s office and creates curriculum for students in kindergarten through 12th grade throughout the year.
This year’s official state Yom HaShoah is at the Beth Israel Congregation in Northfield April 17 at 7:30 p.m. The service, titled “Unto Every Person There is a Name — Remembering the Six Million Jewish Victims of the Holocaust,” is meant for survivors, their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, Director of the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center Gail Rosenthal said. Gov. Christie Christie is scheduled to speak, but he isn’t the keynote speaker. A Holocaust survivor is always the main speaker at Yom HaShoah, Rosenthal explained. This year’s speaker is Donald Berkman, a child Holocaust survivor who hid in the woods Lithuania with his mother for nearly three years.
“Not only does he tell his life story, but he talks about what are the lessons for today,” Rosenthal said. “Because if we don’t link it to today, then we’re talking about dinosaurs. We’re talking about history that doesn’t connect with young people.”
Rosenthal estimates that about 800 people will attend the Northfield Yom HaShoah. All Holocaust survivors are invited, along with family members and the community at large. Each year, the resource center highlights six life stories that attendees can read and each is recognized with the lighting of a candle during the ceremony.
The Jewish Center of Princeton has a unique Yom HaShoah event scheduled where six Torahs that were saved from Susice, Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust will be reunited for the first time. Rabbi Adam Feldman said his synagogue acquired one of the Susice Torahs in 1987 and discovered recently that the Mercer County Community College Holocaust Education Center also had a Torah from Susice. Feldman brought his center’s Torah to the Mercer County facility for a re-dedication several years ago. The director at the Mercer County facility did some research and discovered there were four other Torahs from Susice in the United States.
“That’s when we said if we can bring two together from Mercer County, wouldn’t it be amazing if we bring all six together from all over America? And that’s what we did,” Feldman said.
The four other Torahs are coming from Santa Monica, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Venice, Fla. They are being flown with complimentary tickets from United Airlines and the four people carrying the holy scrolls are traveling courtesy of frequent flyer points members of Feldman’s congregation donated.During Sunday’s 4 p.m. program, titled “The Susice Holocaust Torahs: The Story, The Journey, The Reunion,” attendees will honor Holocaust victims and hear the story of New Jersey resident Hana Gruna, who grew up in Susice. The 92-year-old, who survived two concentration camps, will share her memories of the town she grew up in and what happened to her during the war. Then the Torahs will be paraded in accompanied by the survivors, their children and other congregation children. Speakers will then read from the Torahs.
Last year the Jewish Center of Princeton held a Yom HaShoah ceremony with two former U.S. soldiers who liberated concentration camps telling their stories. Feldman said it’s important to hear from Holocaust survivors and document their stories.
“The reality is survivors will not be here much longer. One of the things I said to my congregation is we, the next generation, need to show the survivors that we will take it from here, that we’ll continue to tell these stories long after they’re here,” Feldman said. “It’s not just their story, it’s now our story.”
There are many more Holocaust remembrance ceremonies throughout the state, including a Yom HaShoah in Mahwah April 18 at 7 p.m. at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, a collaboration between the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies of Ramapo College and Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. Benjamin Levin, who joined the Red Army in liberating Vilna, will speak at the event.
Another commemoration is happening through the Jewish Federation of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties April 19. A service of remembrance will be held at 5:30 p.m. at the Wall of Remembrance at Alliance Cemetery in Pittsgrove Township followed by a service at 6:30 p.m. at Beth Israel Congregation in Vineland.
Dr. Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said the commission, the first of its kind in the country, was first appointed in 1982 by Gov. Thomas Kean. The legislature passed a mandate that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed in 1994 “that all students must learn about the evils of bias and prejudice through the teaching of the Holocaust and genocide,” Winkler explained. His organization creates curriculum for students in kindergarten through high school.
He also stressed that the commission focuses on more than just those who perished during World War II. “It’s very important for us that the Holocaust Commission is not the Jewish commission,” Winkler said. “It’s a commission that deals with all issues of intolerance and prejudice and how it’s impacted people.”
Winkler estimates that about 2,000 Holocaust survivors are living in New Jersey. Rosenthal said many came to the Garden State first as chicken farmers. She explained that many first tried their luck in bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia, but found the language barrier too great to overcome so they acquired land for chicken farms. When farming chickens grew more automated, Holocaust survivors and their families entered other forms of businesses, Rosenthal said.
“The survivors eventually left the farms but they stayed in this area. They went into all different businesses in our area from glass works to restaurants to hotels to textiles,” Rosenthal said. “So many businesses were started by Holocaust survivors and that’s why they remained here. Ninety-nine percent of them started on chicken farms in Cumberland and Atlantic and Cape May counties.”
Winkler encourages all New Jersey residents to attend a remembrance ceremony in their area. He said there are between 30 and 40 happening throughout the state to remember the lives lost and the survivors of the Holocaust.