While 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of World War II, it also provides an opportunity to remember all those who suffered and died under the Nazi regime.
Some survivors, like Dr. Erwin Tepper, were rescued by American Jews and brought to the U.S. as young children. Others, like Elfriede Galanter Schlesinger, were able to escape to London. Still others hid in cellars, forests and convents, or acquired forged papers and attempted to flee the country.
Opening the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education’s (Chhange) annual Yom HaShoah commemoration in Lincroft April 17, Chhange Executive Director Dale Daniels took a moment to honor all those survivors who found freedom at the end of the war.
“But with liberation, they were not fully free,” Daniels said. “They had to struggle to begin new lives. We thank those survivors who are here today for beginning their lives in our community.”
Hundreds of community members, World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors filled the BREC auditorium for the event, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and members of the Former Fort Monmouth Holocaust Remembrance Committee.
After remarks by Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky, noted historian and author Dr. Robert Jan van Pelt gave a keynote address titled “The Liberation of the Camps: A Symbolic End of the Holocaust?”
During the talk, van Pelt explained how the Yom HaShoah day of observance came to be, and how it differs from the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, celebrated on January 27.
The internationally recognized day, he said, is tied with the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and was established by European leaders without input from the Jewish community. Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, was created by the Israeli government, van Pelt said.
“This date was exactly halfway between the end of Passover and the day that the state of Israel was proclaimed,” he said. “It also happened to be the day in the Jewish calendar that the Warsaw ghetto uprising began. So now the association with Holocaust remembrance was not, anymore, the deaths of so many individuals, but it was related to the liberation from Egypt in Exodus, the establishment of the state of Israel… and the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which of course was a moment of extraordinary heroism.”
In keeping with the spirit of Yom HaShoah, the program featured a ceremony of remembrance for 13 local Holocaust survivors and one “Righteous Among the Nations,” a Gentile who risked her own safety to save two neighborhood Jewish men. Maria Kershenbaum, who later married one of those men and moved to Red Bank, lit a candle on behalf of all the Righteous Among the Nations who selfless tried to save others during the war.
Escorted by U.S. Navy personnel from Naval Weapons Station Earle, the gathered survivors lit six candles on behalf of the six million European Jews who died during the Holocaust. Chhange members Roberta Karpel and Mimi Werbler narrated the history of each survivor, from those who managed to escape to those were force from concentration camp to concentration camp, managing to stay alive until liberation came.
Milan Schwartz, they said, was only a toddler when he was forced to hide with his parents and infant brother in a small bunker in the woods when the Germans advanced on Slovakia. His family was eventually betrayed by local citizens and transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where his father was executed only days before the camp was liberated.
Berlin native Tana Gelfer, they said, was interred with her family at the Theresienstadt camp following Kristallnacht.
“Of the 15,000 children that passed through this concentration camp, she was one of only 100 that survived,” Werbler said.
The full list of honorees is: David Marin; Sylvia Wisniewski; Erwin Tepper; Elfriede Galanter Schlesinger; Milan Schwartz; Tana Gelfer; Eva Wiener; Irving Steinfeld; Adela Froiman; Sabina Taubenfeld; Helena Flaum; Henry Zucker; Victor Feldman; and Maria Kershenbaum. The Marlboro High School Choir and Instrumental Quartet played in their honor.
As the decades continue to pass, van Pelt said it is important to continue telling stories like these and ensure their lessons are not lost on future generations.
“Many of us are very concerned what is going to happen to Holocaust education, and the legacy of the Holocaust, when the last of the survivors die,” said van Pelt, whose mother and father-in-law were Holocaust survivors. “Ultimately we are like those soldiers who arrived at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945 … The way they carried that story all over the world may give us some hope that, even with the passing of the last survivor, the story will not be dead.”
For more information on Chhange, visit their website.
Click here for more photos of the ceremony.