As hundreds of students from schools all over Newark gathered for the city’s 28th annual Holocaust Remembrance Day luncheon, a teacher huddled with his students around a table.
“When you see these old people and hear them tell their stories of the horrible things they went through, remember they were your age at the time,” said the teacher. “So don’t look at them as old people, but as your peers.”
The teenagers were joined by dignitaries and survivors in the ballroom at the Robert Treat Hotel on April 23. The Arts High School Advanced Choir and Orchestra Strings both performed.
The primary purpose of the event was “to educate the city’s youth about the tragic events,” said real estate executive Miles Berger, whose Newark-based company cohosted the event with Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and the Newark Holocaust Remembrance Committee.
Survivors and dignitaries lit memorial candles and Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange recited an opening prayer. Among the speakers were former Newark Mayor Sharpe James and Baraka spokesman Felipe Luciano.
Robert Max of Summit, who, as a 20-year-old private in the U.S. Army, was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, delivered the keynote address.
The students sounded a deeply appreciative note when asked about their thoughts on having attended. “It’s pretty amazing that we get to look back on history,” said Iris Charneco, 15, of Saint Vincent Academy, one of 12 Newark schools that sent students. “We get to hear people speak about it — it’s really touching and makes me happy to be able to hear from them.”
Christian Rivera, 13, of the Hawkins Street School called the program “educational.” “It’s one thing reading about it, but to learn from someone who experienced it — that’s a privilege,” he said.
Dino Branco, 14, also of the Hawkins Street School, added, “I was really interested because this guy experienced it by his true self.”
James underscored the importance for such ceremonies, even in a city with few Jewish residents. “Twenty-eight years ago, we were the only city in New Jersey to say ‘Never Again,’” he told the crowd. “People would say ‘why’? We don’t have a large Jewish community here. I said, ‘You forgot.’” He then listed a roster of accomplishments of Newark Jews who attended the city’s famed Weequahic High School. James quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere,” adding a quote from philosopher Edmund Burke: “‘The only way evil can triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.’”
Luciano brought current events into the conversation.
“It is one thing to be swept up in the street because you’re black. But it’s quite another for your entire community — your mama, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — to be put into a cattle car, to be identified by a star on your coat,” said Luciano, the city’s director of communications.
“Don’t think it can’t happen here,” he said. “When money gets tight, people turn on one another. In Poland [non-Jewish] people shared Shabbos, went to people’s bar mitzvas, and then turned on their neighbors and turned them in.” He urged his audience to embrace and celebrate their diverse identities and each other.
Luciano also addressed the Jews in the audience.
“I believe this town is going to be a city on a hill,” said Luciano. “But I want more Jews in town. I hope you’ll come back. They say the Jews left in ’67 because of the riots. Well, your ex wants you back. Come on, y’all!”
Max recalled his ordeal in a German slave labor camp.
“Work or die. The formula was that simple. They took my winter coat and pulled my gloves off my hands,” he recalled. “Move forward, march. When those guarding us pointed their rifles to the ground, it meant lie down. When they took my coat and gloves, I thought we were going to a shelter. No. The road was covered with snow and ice. But we were told to lie down. Without a winter coat or gloves for the next 80 or 90 nights that’s the way we slept.”
Max lost 45 pounds during 90 days in captivity; he and two army buddies summoned the strength to flee their Nazi captors. Max spent 10 months in a military hospital on Staten Island.
“There’s a big difference between a POW and a slave labor camp. But this was a class unto itself, a kind of captivity little reported because so few Americans were forced into that lifestyle,” he said.
Gerda Bikales, a survivor from Livingston who attended with her husband and adult son, was moved by the city’s gesture.
“It’s wonderful that the city of Newark wants to do it,” she said. “It’s a city with financial struggles, and that it’s willing to put out to remember the Holocaust and to bring in these children, students —it’s wonderful.”