Connecting present and past was their challenge, said organizers of the Yom Hashoa commemoration at Kean University in Union.
Opening the April 8 event, the largest involving the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Marcy Lazar said, “Recognize that you, each of you, is part of the last generation who can say you knew, or saw, and heard these heroic people and their stories. Tonight’s program reflects this responsibility.”
The regional commemoration at Kean’s Wilkins Theater was cohosted by the federation, Kean’s Holocaust Resource Center, and — for the first time — the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest.
Lazar, the Westfield resident who chairs the commemoration committee, said she was pleased by the turnout of 400-500. It was the first Yom Hashoa event since the merger between the Central NJ and MetroWest federations last summer, and there was some concern that confusion about the new situation might keep people away.
“I just wish that more people in the community knew how moving this event is and had come to share it with us,” Lazar said.
In the past, the program has focused on the stories of six survivors, each of whom lit a candle in memory of the Six Million. Fewer stories were related this time, and the candle lighters, led by survivor and longtime Holocaust educator Clara Kramer, represented different groups in the community.
The entire audience lit the LED candles they had received upon arrival, kindling their “flames” as their group was announced — survivors, members of the second and third generations, rescuers and their relatives, World War II veterans and their relatives, those who know survivors, and those “moved to light a candle against the darkness of evil” — until everyone was on their feet, the whole auditorium starred with lights.
Each year, the Kean program highlights a different way of recalling the suffering and heroism of the Nazis’ victims. This year, that honor was carried by Melissa Schaffer, part of whose play Windows was given a staged reading. She and a cast led by director David Winitsky performed the first few scenes, punctuated by two songs sung by 11-year-old Jillian Skara. The story is based on the nightmarish experiences of a local survivor, now in her 80s and a great-grandmother.
The play won first prize last year in a competition sponsored by the Jewish Plays Project in collaboration with the Holocaust Council, with a two-year, $12,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ matched by the Darivoff Family Foundation. Schaffer, a Montclair resident who is a composer as well as a writer and actor, said the competition gave her the impetus to capture the story of “Eugenia” (not the woman’s real name; she has chosen to remain anonymous.)
To draw in the younger generation, organizers gave participants between eight and 21 a chance to win an iPad, provided courtesy of the Continuity of Student Education Initiative. In an apt twist of fate, the winner turned out to be 15-year-old Moses Rifkin, the playwright’s son, who was delighted. “My mother based the play on the story I recorded with the survivor as my bar mitzva project,” he explained.
Moses said meeting the woman was an extraordinary experience. “What made me cry was when she told me how, when she held her great-grandchild on her lap and the child looked up into her eyes, she said to herself, ‘We won.’”