Bright hopes amid dark memories Holocaust dead are honored at annual remembrance

April 15, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

There were tears in the crowd yesterday as hundreds gathered at the War Memorial Building for Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance that has become an annual memorial for 6 million Jews exterminated half a century ago in Europe.

"I noticed that some of you were crying as if it was yesterday," keynote speaker Michael Schneider said. "Don't worry about that. We should all remember as if it was yesterday."

Mr. Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Inc., based in New York, was honored yesterday for the committee's work before, during and since the Holocaust.

Sometimes called the "Joint," the committee has operations in more than 40 countries and assists about 9,000 Holocaust survivors. It provides rescue, relief and reconstruction throughout the world, 51 years after liberation of the Nazi death camps in Europe at the end of World War II.

But Mr. Schneider said, "We still have that same wish: to go out of business."

His work with the committee since the 1970s has taken him around the world.

Mr. Schneider, a British citizen born in South Africa, was head of Jewish Social Services in London when he took the committee job.

"They offered me what I thought was a nice, soft job in June, 1978 -- and I ended up in Tehran just months before the Khomeini revolution," he said. "Since then, it's been a bit of a spin."

In 1979, he traveled to Hungary and, eventually, to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia when the committee was invited to return there for the first time since World War II.

During the 1980s, in Paris, Mr. Schneider negotiated the committee's entry into Ethiopia.

Mr. Schneider recalled a recent meeting in Sarajevo with an elderly man whom he had almost knocked over because he was in a hurry and whom he listened to impatiently.

"He said, 'Please, sir, I only wanted to thank you. You saved my life twice. In 1942, you saved me from the Holocaust, and now, in 1992, I was starving to death and I received a package from the Joint.'

"In an alcove, sheltering us from potential sniper fire, we were there together, weeping, he because he had finally been able to thank someone and I thinking of my own plentiful life and how we had been able to help."

In ceremonies before Mr. Schneider's speech, Deli Strummer, 73, carried a candle in a procession of Holocaust survivors. There was a candle for each million dead, along with a seventh candle, carried by a child, to represent hope.

That has been the focus of Mrs. Strummer's life since her ordeal: children and the hope of peace.

"I don't call myself a survivor," she said. "I am a victor, a victor because I see all life is precious. Because in the worst moments of my life, I gave myself a commitment: that if I should live, I will tell the world about it."

Mrs. Strummer was a nurse in training in Vienna, Austria, when, at age 18, she was sent to the first of five concentration camps, Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.

Before her liberation at age 23 from Mauthausen, in Austria, she saw the horrors of Auschwitz.

"To speak about Auschwitz. I was almost tortured to death. I was burned. I was whipped. I was starved. But for some odd reason, I wanted to live. I had this unbelievable strength," said Mrs. Strummer, who was one of the subjects of last year's award-winning television documentary "Triumph of the Spirit."

"My voice will silence one day," said Mrs. Strummer, who came to Baltimore as a displaced person in 1950, "and I hope, especially, the young people today will carry on."

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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