By David Cruz
Students at this 30th Holocaust Remembrance got the facts and figures about one of the world’s great tragedies. But this was more than a class trip downtown and a morning away from school. Today’s event — with the theme of We Shall Overcome — was an often moving, first-person account of survival and a rallying cry for tolerance and peace and justice.
“Our job is to reach out to one another, to understand each other, to support the humanity that we see in every single human being,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “And our young people are here because we want to make sure that they remember the atrocities that took place, so that we can make sure they don’t happen, or they becomes victims of it, but, more importantly, we want to make sure they don’t become perpetrators of it.”
After a ceremonial lighting of candles for survivors, keynote speaker Michael Zeiger told the story of how his family — through the help of a neighbor named Anton — survived, first in a Jewish ghetto and then in an underground bunker, dug out, in darkness, with spoons and knives, by Anton and Zeiger’s father.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry; I will take care of you. I won’t let anyone harm you,’” he recalled before an audience of close to 500. “Life in a bunker. Just visualize a place, a hole four feet deep, enough for six people. Three people this way, three people the opposite way, facing each other. Just like a deck of cards.”
They were liberated by the Soviet army in July of 1944 after a harrowing two years underground.
“We were beyond recognition,” he recounted. “We didn’t look human. We couldn’t walk, obviously. We couldn’t talk; we didn’t use our voices. We were just whispering. We were swollen. We couldn’t see. The soldiers were looking at us. We saw tears in their eyes, and one soldier was crossing himself.”
The kids, many having recently just studied the Holocaust, were struck, gathering around Zeiger and other survivors to hear their stories.
“It was mind-blowing,” said student Taleha White. “Coming here and seeing survivors. It was just overwhelming, and how history has changed so much and how we will never forget what happened.”
Student Jade Brame was asked what the stories she heard had to say to a young black woman in Newark. “I think it says to me that I need to pay attention to what goes on in our society,” she responded, “and I need to stay attentive to what’s happening and that I need to take the power that I have in society, voting and take it seriously and use it and apply myself to change our society for the better.”
To forget our history is to condemn ourselves to repeat it, but, every retelling of the horrors of mankind presents an opportunity to shine a light, to open eyes and to protect against forces that would turn back the clock to a time when hatred ruled and no one stood up to challenge it.