Slowly, one by one, six men and women rose from their seats in the front pew of the sanctuary at Temple Beth Zion in downtown Buffalo.
One by one, they made their way – some with help, some on their own – to a long white table in the front of the vast room. Each took the tall, previously lighted candle from its holder, bent forward, and lighted one of the six memorial candles before them, in front of a hushed, respectful audience of more than 200 people.
Six candles. Six million Jews.
Six survivors, each with his or her story of escaping or staying hidden in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust.
It’s been 71 years since the end of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps, when the full extent of the horrors inflicted by Nazi Germany on European Jewry became known to the world. But for survivors who are still alive today, the memories are vivid, and their obligation to tell others is real.
“We have a moral duty, especially the victims, to talk about it. If we don’t talk about the Holocaust anymore as a unique experience, we talk about the lessons of the Holocaust, because we still have genocide,” said Sophia Veffer, who was 10 years old in Amsterdam, Netherlands, when her parents sent her away to hide out during the war with non-Jewish families. “It’s practically the same. You need the same group of people to make this happen: you need the victim, the perpetrators and you need the bystanders.”
In particular, Veffer and others say, it’s the broader community that can make a difference. “The bystanders are the most dangerous group. They say it does not concern me, and they help the perpetrators to commit the crime,” she said in an interview. “I don’t want you to be bystanders. You are all upstanders. You live in a global society. What happens in one part of the world will concern you.”
Sunday’s somber program, sponsored by the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, marked the annual community commemoration of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was punctuated by solemn music performed by violinist Sarah Donatelli, as well as the singing in Yiddish of the Partisan Song, and memorial prayers in Hebrew. An air raid siren was sounded three times.
In a film by Jim Gang and former television newscaster Rich Kellman prior to the candle lighting, the six survivors spoke of their memories, the impact of their experiences, the need to teach about what happened, and the importance of collective responsibility.
“We remember those who perished in the camps, the victims of an immoral and senseless government-sponsored discrimination and violence, directly supported or tacitly accepted by members of a nation that was considered a civilized society at that time,” said Rachel Kranitz McPhee, chairwoman of the Yom Hashoah program.
“We also remember the survivors, who miraculously endured physical, mental and emotional anguish for years, arriving on the shores of a new land with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“We remember those survivors who, despite the overwhelming odds, flourished and prospered in a new land. And we remember those whose wounds would never be healed, who struggled and fought demons for the rest of their lives.”
As the ranks of Holocaust survivors become thinner with time, those who remain are working with community leaders to ensure their efforts continue for generations through recordings and videos. “We want to preserve the memories and recollections of the survivors that we’re lucky enough to still have with us today. We want to both use them as inspiration and as a teaching tool to upcoming generations,” McPhee said. “That’s why it’s important to do this every year, so we can show the community how important this is.”
And they’re striving to make their experiences relevant to younger generations, by connecting the Holocaust with recent genocides around the world. “At this very hour, there are people across the world that are suffering,” McPhee said. “The Holocaust is not just a lesson for or about Jews, but a lesson for all humanity.”
Survivors like 91-year-old Herman Stone often visit schools to talk to young students about what happened, and the Holocaust Resource Center even sends teachers to the Holocaust Museum in Washington for training.
“But it’s still going on,” said Stone, who grew up in Munich, Germany, before escaping in March 1939 and coming to Buffalo with the help of both Jewish and non-Jewish friends. “You hope that these kids will remember as they grow up, and will become active, and will notice when things start to happen and will speak up and try to stop it when it’s small.”
In a nod to that next generation, a group of five sixth- and seventh-graders from Kadimah Academy sang “Blue Tattoo,” from a recent documentary by Kellman and photographer Marty Kerker. And students from the Congregation Shir Shalom school and the Temple Beth Zion choir sang a Hebrew song written by a Hungarian Jewish woman, who had escaped to Palestine but was then trained by the British army to parachute into Yugoslavia to help save her own people. She was captured and executed.
The ceremony also honored the memory of Miron B. Wasik, a former master sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 14th Armored Division who was among the soldiers who liberated thousands of prisoners from the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. Wasik, a son of immigrants, was from North Tonawanda, but spoke fluent Polish, enabling him to communicate with local farmers in Poland who knew what was happening nearby, and gave U.S. troops the knowledge they needed to find the camp. He received two Bronze Stars for his service, and returned home to Niagara County in 1945.
Long silent about what he had seen, he began talking about his role in the liberation only in the five years before his death in 2015. “He would get very emotional and then he would stop,” said his son, George, who now lives in the town of Cambria, and who lighted a candle for his father. “He was sick about it. He just said an animal has more rights than what happened there among the Nazis.”
Sunday’s program also kicked off a temporary new museum exhibit at the Delaware Avenue synagogue, featuring religious and cultural items that had been seized by Nazis from Jewish homes before and during the war, but whose original owners were no longer alive or could not be found. “Saving a Legacy: Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in Buffalo” will be on display through May 31.
“Behind every ceremonial object that we are now the custodians of, there was a family and a community who once cherished them,” said Chana Kotzin, the Buffalo Jewish community archivist who announced the exhibit. “We hope to discover each of those stories, too.”