On a day reserved for reflection, Jewish and government leaders tied the atrocities of World War II to the current turmoil in the Middle East during the Holocaust Day of Remembrance ceremony yesterday in Baltimore.
Increasing violence between Israelis and Palestinians prompted the last-minute addition of a prayer for peace and inspired speakers to rewrite their remarks for the event.
"The security of Jewish people can never be taken for granted," Aviva Raz-Shechter, a representative for the Israeli Embassy, said to the more than 1,000 people gathered inside the War Memorial Building.
Raz-Shechter, the embassy's counselor for public affairs, said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has "betrayed the hopes of the people he leads" and that "suicide bombings could well blow up the best and only hope for a Palestinian state."
Her biting commentary followed brief remarks by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who said they see echoes of the Holocaust in the Middle East violence of today.
Survivors at the ceremony said it is particularly painful for them to listen to news about suicide bombings, military action in the West Bank and what one speaker called "blatant anti-Semitism" around the world.
"I know what it's like to live in terror," said Rubin Sztajer, 76, who said he spent three years and three days at three concentration camps. "It's very sad the world is still this way. It brings back a lot of memories of what happened in Europe."
Sztajer called the Day of Remembrance events "the only cemetery we have" for the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Grandchildren of survivors lighted candles and a choir of children from the Yeshivat Rambam Academy in Baltimore sang during the 90-minute ceremony, which ended with a two-block procession to the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial.
Lessons of the past
In its 20th year, Baltimore's Day of Remembrance, also called Yom Hashoah, traditionally focuses on lessons from the past, said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
"This is the first year we're explicitly making the link between the Holocaust and a current event," Abramson said. "There's very much a direct line from the Holocaust to what's going on now."
Abramson said the ceremony's organizers decided last Monday to add the current events dimension to the ceremony.
Keynote speaker Daniel Eisenstadt, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, said he had no trouble including his view on the Middle East conflict.
A symbol of hope
"It's like the elephant in the room," he said about the topic. "And it shows that it's more important than ever to remember the Holocaust."
In his speech, Eisenstadt called Auschwitz, which he said he has visited 75 times, a symbol of hope.
"People left there and went on to build meaningful lives," said Eisenstadt, the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors.
Among the survivors at the ceremony was Morris Baker, 76, of Pikesville, who spent a year at three concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He worked as a furniture upholsterer until his retirement.
Baker and Sztajer said they had been to every Day of Remembrance held in Baltimore.
Sztajer said he came to Baltimore about 50 years ago and worked as a salesman until his retirement.
Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Howard County Executive James N. Robey and other local government officials sat alongside Baltimore Jewish Council members at the ceremony.
Robey said that because Howard has a large Jewish community, he "felt compelled to see Israel firsthand" and traveled there last year.
"I ask myself what's changed since the '30s and '40s - life to some people is still meaningless," Robey said before the ceremony, reflecting on the suicide bombings and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.