This past Wednesday the Jewish community of Southern New Jersey held their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill. This commemoration takes place throughout the world to remember both the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust by Nazi Germany and its collaborators and for the Jewish resistance during the war. The first commemorations took place in 1951 in Israel and it is now a national memorial day through a law passed by the Knesset in 1959. It is held on the 27th of Nisan (April/May), unless the 27th falls next to the Jewish Sabbath, in which case it is transferred by one day.
Yom HaShoah is commemorated locally every year through the Jewish Community Relations Council in collaboration with the Tri-County Board of Rabbis. The planning of the service comes through the diligent work of Helen Kirschbaum, director of the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center.
Helen has been a wonderful advocate of Holocaust education in South Jersey and she has worked closely with our own Catholic schools in facilitating Holocaust education. She has arranged meetings with Holocaust survivors and our Catholic school students, as well as, trips to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. Helen has dedicated her life in many ways to that just cause of Holocaust education so that the world would not forget the memory of those lost to hatred and racial targeting and to teach ways of peaceful coexistence among all God’s children.
A local Holocaust survivor, Fred Behrend, spoke at the commemoration at Temple Emanuel. Fred shared his story of struggle from Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, the night of terror for all Jews throughout Nazi Germany on Nov. 9-10, 1938, to Cuba and eventually the United States when he served as a translator to captured soldiers and later worked with Wernher von Braun, famous aerospace engineer and space architect.
Fred Behrend, 92 years old, shared part of his circuitous path to the United States following the beginning of the Holocaust on the night of Kristallnacht.
He shared some of his thoughts in a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer when asked what he thought of the recent murder of Jews at Shabbat services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. “I thought of my walk to school in Cologne, where at age 12, I was living with a cantor’s family so I could attend a Jewish day school after Jewish children were banned from public schools. I saw one synagogue on fire, then another, and another. I remembered the caravan of Jews being marched through the streets, people beating them with sticks and throwing things at them. I thought of Cuba, where my family fled as refugees in February 1939 — the only place that would take us because our quota number had not come up yet to allow us into the U.S. Having lived a very sheltered life, it was only after my parents and I escaped there that they told me the cause of our flight and what happened at home in Ludenscheid on Kristallnacht. The Nazis came to the door at 6 a.m., pointed their pistols and took my father away as my mother screamed. He was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen until he was released on condition of leaving behind our country and all our worldly goods as soon as possible.”
In Israel, and many places throughout the world, including our Cherry Hill commemoration, candles are lit to remember all who were killed during the Holocaust. In Israel, Yom HaShoah begins at sundown and a state ceremony is formally held at the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Authority in Jerusalem. Also on this day, Holocaust survivors, as well as those who want to honor the memory of these survivors, will light six candles.
I had the honor of lighting a candle at the commemoration that remembered and mourned the death of the 5 million non-Jews, including disabled people, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain groups of people from both Russia and Poland. In a special way I held in my heart the thousands of bishops, priests, nuns and Protestant ministers who were swept away in German concentration camps during the Holocaust. Yom HaShoah reminds us of the wages of ignoring hatred, prejudice, bias, and intolerance. May we never forget and work always to eradicate hate in all its incarnations!
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.