While the Holocaust can be fully understood only by those who experienced it, said historian Robert Jan van Pelt, its dimensions can at least be grasped through the experience of the soldiers — Russian and American — who liberated the camps 70 years ago.
One way to “find traction,” suggested van Pelt, is to “trace the steps not of the victims,” but of those liberators.
An authority on Auschwitz, van Pelt was the keynote speaker at the annual commemoration of Yom Hashoa held at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.
The program, held April 17, was sponsored by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at BCC and supported by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Van Pelt, who holds a PhD in the history of ideas and has taught at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, premised his remarks on the belief that the enormity of so horrific an event can never be fully accessible to people who have led relatively normal lives.
The historian quoted Primo Levi, the Italian-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, who said his liberators initially had difficulty just looking at the camp with its dead bodies and emaciated survivors.
The reactions Levi described — from embarrassment to shame to guilt that “such a crime should exist” — marked a watershed, said van Pelt. “For the first time the dimensions of the catastrophe had become visible,” he said.
He also noted how, in establishing the date of Yom Hashoa in 1953, the Israeli government placed it halfway between the end of Passover and Israel’s Independence Day.
As a result, Yom Hashoa commemorates not just the horror and sorrow of the Holocaust, but serves as a “point of light” between a festival and a historic anniversary — both of which celebrate Jewish freedom from oppression.
“Our position is that of a witness, not unlike those first Russian soldiers or American GIs,” said van Pelt. “As the survivors are dying out, it is a position of hope that, like those liberators, we can remain connected to the event.”
The program featured 13 local survivors and one non-Jew representing those who rescued Jews from the Nazis. Now in their 80s or 90s, they lit memorial candles honoring the six million who perished.
Officers and enlisted personnel from U.S. Naval Weapons Station Earle, as well as a color guard, provided escorts for each candle lighter. (For a list of the candle lighters, see sidebar)
The Marlboro High School Choir and Instrumental Quartet, directed by Patrick Dalton, performed “Ani Ma’amin” (“I Believe”), which is taken from Maimonides’ declaration of the principles of Jewish faith.
Other speakers included federation CEO Keith Krivitzky; Alan Sherman of Long Branch, a longtime supporter of Chhange; and Dale Daniels, the organization’s executive director.
Daniels thanked the survivors for “reminding us of the strength, courage, and resilience it takes to move into life again when everything has been taken from you. You are heroes to us all, reminding us that we have a responsibility to remember the past, and inspiring us to take action to make a difference today.”