A day for remembering

Holocaust: Howard County's Yom HaShoah observance honors victims by focusing on death-camp survivors and their children.

April 27, 2001|By Jean Leslie | Jean Leslie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At a Yom HaShoah memorial service Sunday, the Howard County Jewish community and others remembered the Holocaust and its 6 million victims in song, prayer and stories. Beth Shalom Congregation of Columbia was host to the standing-room-only crowd of about 275.

Details of the Holocaust are still surfacing, more than 50 years after the world learned of the extent of the Nazis' persecution of Jews. People around the globe memorialize the victims each spring with services on Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This is a young remembrance, first suggested in Israel shortly after the end of World War II. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, proclaimed in 1951 that the 27th of the Hebrew-calendar month of Nisan be set aside to remember the Warsaw, Poland, ghetto uprising and the Holocaust. The remembrance is 50 years old this year, and Jews and Christians celebrate Yom HaShoah with candle lighting, stories of survivors, music and prayer.

This week's Yom HaShoah remembrance in Howard County was different from previous ones. A committee, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Howard County and led by Jacalyn Ely and Murray Bakst, chose to remember those most intimately affected by the Holocaust - those who survived it and their families.

"Many of the survivors have passed away now, but Howard County has plenty of survivors' children. Like their parents, many of the second-generation survivors still find the subject painful to talk about - so people don't know who they are," Ely said.

The service traced the history of the Holocaust with a chronological selection of Holocaust literature, starting with a snapshot of Jewish life before the war and concluding with a glimpse of living survivors and thoughts for our time. A Holocaust survivor or the child of a survivor was a reader for each literary selection.

Included in Howard County's second-generation survivors are some who are well-known in the Jewish religious community: Brenda Fishbein, vice president of the Jewish Federation of Howard County; and Rabbi Hillel Baron.

"When we planned this year's service," Ely said, "we contacted Howard County's Jewish congregations and were pleased with the response we got. Some found the topic too difficult to speak about in front of an audience, so we asked them to perform nonspeaking roles, such as the traditional lighting of six candles to symbolize the 6 million dead. One survivor's child agreed to read with her mother, the Holocaust survivor, standing by her side."

Roberta Greenstein, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, said, "When the Holocaust was over, survivors were new immigrants to the U.S. and they were shell-shocked. And they were afraid that people wouldn't understand what they had gone through, that they would say, `How could you let that happen to your family?' when there was no way individuals could stop Nazi military force."

Readers also were asked to submit their relatives' survival stories to include in the written program. Among the memories were young men hiding in woods and fields to escape the German army; children being protected by "righteous gentiles," and those who escaped from or somehow survived Nazi labor camps, concentration camps and death marches.

The guest speaker was New York resident Evelyn Pike Rubin, a European Jew who survived the war by moving to Shanghai, a place reputedly safe for Jews. But in China, the Japanese, allies of Germany, forced European Jews to live in miserable, disease-ridden conditions in a ghetto. Rubin has published her memories in a 1993 book, "Ghetto Shanghai."

The service did not consist only of haunting stories. Cantor Jan Morrison led 14 members of the Teen Choir of Columbia Jewish Congregation as they sang a Hebrew and a Yiddish prayer. Second-generation survivors - also cantors from local congregations - led the audience in singing prayers remembering loved ones and fellow Jews. The Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish, was sung while the names of Nazi concentration camps were recited.

The prayer "El Malei Rachamim" offered one possibility of dealing with the destruction of 6 million people:

"Exalted, compassionate God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the holy and the pure, to the souls of all our brethren ... of the House of Israel who were slaughtered and burned. ... May they rest in peace."

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