Time, said Kean University president Dr. Dawood Farahi, is both a blessing and a threat. “It is great because it allows you to forget, and it is a danger because it allows you not to remember.”
In addressing the annual Yom Hashoa commemoration hosted every year by the university in Union, he challenged the 800 people present to keep the memory of the victims alive, and to champion the commitment to Holocaust and genocide education, a field in which Kean has been a pioneer.
The April 28 event, sponsored by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest and Kean, this year marked the 20th anniversary of the New Jersey State Mandate for Holocaust Education. Dr. Paul Winkler, who led that effort and has served as executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, was honored for his long service.
He recalled how the late Murray Pantirer, a Schindler’s List survivor, and others fought for that mandate. “They asked, ‘If we don’t do it, who will? If not now, when?’” Winkler recalled. Since the mandate’s adoption, hundreds of thousands of NJ children have learned what happened. “But teachers still face a battle to include it in the curriculum,” he said, adding, “Deniers are still out there, but we will continue to defeat them now and forever.”
While certain elements of the ceremony were kept — including a performance by children from the Jewish Educational Center Yeshiva and Elmora Public School 12 in Elizabeth and the lighting of six candles in memory of the Six Million — this year’s program featured a number of innovations reflecting the theme, “A Moral Mandate: Memories of the Unimaginable.”
Gerda Bikales described Kristallnacht in her hometown of Breslau in Germany. She was seven but remembers watching in baffled horror as “a gang of merrymakers” rampaged outside, “trampling, ripping, and urinating on the Torahs” from the nearby synagogue. “These are the memories of a bewildered child, few but very sharp,” she said. What happened in Breslau, she said, “was the point of no return.” For Jews, “life in Germany, even a degenerated life, was no longer possible.”
Her husband, Dr. Norbert Bikales, recalled how as a boy of 10 he was separated from his parents and brother and sent on a Kindertransport to France. He had one small suitcase, a name tag, and about $5 to his name. He was warmly welcomed by Jewish and non-Jewish rescuers, and cared for by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, or Organization to Save the Children, who themselves were facing the risk of Nazi attacks.
He never saw his parents again, but seven years later was reunited with his brother. “Of the 40 boys in our group, four were arrested, and two were killed, including my best friend,” he recalled. “Eight of us are still in touch.” He has had a happy life, he continued, and added to applause, “My wife and I have been married for 63 years; today is our anniversary.”
Cantor Judith Steele opened and closed her portion with songs. She described her experience on the SS St. Louis — “the voyage of the damned” — with its shipload of refugee passengers turned away from Havana and then Miami, to be returned to Nazi-dominated Europe. The family found safe haven in France, but only temporarily. She was just four when her father took her to a gathering of people, told her to look at “something I would find attractive to my right,” let go of her hand, and disappeared, forever.
She broke her heart losing her parents, she said, and it broke again when she left the French Catholic woman who mothered her for the next few years until she was sent to live in the United States in 1946.
Speakers recalled the extraordinary contribution to Holocaust education and the Jewish community made by Sam Halpern and Abe Zuckerman, two survivors who died this past year. There was another sad loss just last week: Alan Krebs, who with his wife Fran served for many years on the Yom Hashoa planning committee, the group (headed by Marcy Lazar) which organizes the Kean event.
Among those in the crowd were a number of survivors and other elderly community members. “I’m almost 90,” said Anitta Fox, who left Austria at 13, just after Kristallnacht. “I shouldn’t be here anymore.”
“Oh, you’re just a spring chicken; I’m 91,” replied Marsha Kreuzman, who was liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945. A woman walking near them cut in and said, “And we need you both to stay around as long as possible, to share your stories and your wisdom with us.”