As the oppression in the Warsaw Ghetto became ever harsher, one of its doomed residents, Chaim Kaplan, wrote, “Everything is forbidden to us, yet we do everything.” The ghetto was liquidated in April 1943, and the 56,000 remaining residents were killed or deported, but their spirit of defiance lives on.
Kaplan’s words were read by Shmuel Lesher, a student at the Jewish Educational Center’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, at the Yom Hashoa commemoration at Kean University on April 12.
The theme was “Inside the Walls: Jewish Life in the Ghettos,” and throughout the program, that resilience was celebrated. Lesher was one of six students who read ghetto writings as a montage of Holocaust images loomed behind them.
The annual event, cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and Kean’s Holocaust Resource Center, was organized by Adina Abramov, the federation’s director of marketing and communications, and the Yom Hashoa Committee headed by Marcy Lazar.
Adam Ziering, a young member of Temple Manu-El in Westfield, read from the last letter written by another Warsaw Ghetto resident and hero of the ghetto uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz. “Only a few will survive,” he wrote. Though knowing they had no chance of success, he was jubilant that their efforts to rally a fighting force had succeeded. “What happened exceeded our boldest dreams. Self-defense in the ghetto has become a reality.”
The program was presented by Prof. Keith Nunes, a scholar-in-residence at Kean and director of its Holocaust Studies program. In his opening words, he spoke of the “awe” awakened in him by Holocaust survivors. He quoted renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who spoke recently at Kean, who suggested that they embody a link to eternity, linking today’s and future generations with “the Six Million and Hashem.”
Kean president Dr. Dawood Farahi also celebrated the irrepressible spirit of those who fought back against the Nazis. Normally, he said, faced with such hardship and suffering, “the first thing that takes over is despair,” and yet these people found so many ways to resist forming cooperative organizations, and striving hardest of all to save the lives of children.
Acknowledging that since the Shoa there have been so many other mass atrocities, Farahi asked, “How do you prevent something like that?” His answer: “You vaccinate against it with education, education, education.” He mentioned with pride that the program on the Holocaust and prejudice reduction that Kean offers to schools is booked up until 2015.
As is done each year at the commemoration ceremony, six survivors lit candles in remembrance of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Each one had their own story of survival related by a family member. And each story included not only an experience of nightmare suffering, but also a burning determination to survive.
Danielle Baukh told Rachel Gurdus’ story. Like so many survivors, Gurdus didn’t want to speak to outsiders about her experiences. Baukh said, “She said other people were writing and sharing their stories. She didn’t have to. And I didn’t blame her.” To keep reliving that suffering would have been like pulling the scab off a wound, deepening the scars. But after she was approached by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation to record her story, she gave in. She had a voice, and a clear memory, and she spoke out for those who couldn’t.
That same drive was true of Miriam Lichtenstein Gershwin, Sara Williams, Genia Kohn Litwok, Marcia Kreuzman, and Luna Kaufman — whose daughter read an excerpt from her book, Luna’s Life: A Journey of Forgiveness and Triumph.
Further readings about those times came from Cantor Martha Novick of Temple Emanu-El, who gave a d’var Torah based on them. Chana Solomon led her choir from the Jewish Educational Center Yeshiva, federation president Gerry Cantor chanted “Ani Ma’amin,” Rabbi Joshua Hess of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden read Psalm 23, and Pete Kessel, the past chair of the Yom Hashoa Committee, recited Kaddish. The evening ended with Cantor Ira Heller singing “The Partisan’s Song,” with members of the audience, many of them survivors themselves, joining in.
Sen. Robert Menendez was not able to attend the event, but he summed up the spirit of the gathering in a letter addressed to the audience. He said the extraordinary mutual support people offered one another in the ghettos “teaches us something very important about the human ability to bring light into even the darkest times in our history.”