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Refugee activists honored as Holocaust ceremony affirms bonds

Memories of the Holocaust were combined with concern for today's refugees and immigrants during an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony Sunday.

Six "Buffalo Upstanders," as the organizers of the event called them, were honored for their work on behalf of newcomers and those subject to prejudice and persecution.

Each came to Temple Beth Tzedek in Amherst to light one of six memorial candles, symbolizing the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis before and during World War II.

Rachel Kranitz McPhee, chairwoman and mistress of ceremonies, said that in the past, Holocaust survivors lit the candles.

"This is a first for us. Unfortunately, we are losing a lot of the survivors," McPhee said.

When she asked for survivors and second- and third-generation survivors to rise at the start of the ceremony, about 30 people stood up; but almost all of them were descendants of those who went through the Holocaust.

Western New York's survivors of the Holocaust

Sunday's ceremony drew an overflow crowd of about 500, which Kranitz McPhee called the largest turnout in recent years.

Among the honorees was Leonce Byimana, a clinical psychologist who assisted survivors of the 1994 genocide in his native Rwanda. He has lived in Buffalo for the past two years as the program director of the Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture.

"I feel honored, because this is a great remembrance of humanity," Byimana said. "I feel inspired to do even more."

Local center takes holistic approach to help refugee survivors of trauma, torture

Other honorees included Michelle Holler, manager of the West Side Bazaar, a Grant Street business incubator that helps immigrants, refugees and the poor start their own businesses; and John C. Starkey, the principal of Lafayette International High School in Buffalo, where half the students are refugees.

Three students also were among the Upstanders: Sarina Divan, a Williamsville East High School senior and activist for female empowerment; Jordan Fuller, a Nazareth College student who, when she attended Williamsville South High School, created a food pantry for all schools in the Williamsville district; and Alexandria Iwanenko, a graduating senior at Canisius College and the great-granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who has won awards for social activism and community service.

Sarina Divan lights a memorial candle during the service. Click on the photo to see more photos. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, the keynote speaker, said the experiences of Jewish people throughout history, from the Exodus from Egypt to Nazi Germany, demonstrate that Jews should be sympathetic to immigrants and refugees.

"Compassion for the stranger is mentioned dozens of times in the Torah, and almost every time, the rationale is given as well," the judge said. "Be kind, because you know their experience."

Bloch Rodwin said that her mother and grandparents lived in Berlin before being admitted to the United States in 1937, when a distant cousin was convinced to falsely sign a State Department form on which he claimed that he was actually her mother's uncle.

"Identifying with the immigrant and the refugee is the beginning," Bloch Rodwin said. "We are commanded not to think of ourselves in isolation."

Kranitz McPhee condemned "an uptick in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment from some of our fellow Americans. We can take heart in the fact that the great majority of Americans are not only tolerant but stand with us in speaking out against these injustices."

[GALLERY: Commemorating Yom HaShoah]

K. Nicholas Leibovic, 95, whose family fled to England after all Jewish children in his native Lithuania were expelled from school in 1938, was one of the original survivors at Sunday's event.

"I experienced anti-Semitism, hatred, unreasoned, mindless hatred which was based on nothing, except that I'm Jewish," Leibovic said after the ceremony.

Leibovic said Lithuania had about 250,000 Jews before World War II, in which the country was first taken over by the Soviet Union and then invaded by the Germans.

"After the war, I think there were about 3,000 or 4,000 Jews left," he said.

Alex Rubin, grandson of a Holocaust survivor, read the text of remarks given Sunday at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Auschwitz by Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel, the famed Holocaust survivor and activist, who died last year.

Leibovic, who came to America in 1960 and moved to Buffalo in 1964, said it's crucial that the memory of the Holocaust remains alive.

"I think human nature has not changed all that much," he said. "Depending on the circumstances, the cruelty of one man against another has no bounds, and the question is, how can we avoid that? Because it is so self-destructive."

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