In an annual ceremony, a tragedy is remembered

Holocaust: About 2,000, including survivors, attend the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for Yom Hashoah.

April 19, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Felix Kestenberg carries an unmistakable sadness behind his light brown eyes.

"A lot of times I wonder why I was selected to live and 6 million died," said Kestenberg, a Holocaust survivor, in a slight Polish accent.

Kestenberg's three older siblings and his father perished at the hands of Nazis during World War II. As a man in his 20s, he was shuttled among seven death camps over five years, barely escaping with his life.

Now a Baltimore resident, Kestenberg joined other Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall yesterday for the annual Yom Hashoah Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

About 2,000 people showed up to honor the day and hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra led by Elli Jaffe, music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

The event was sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Music included selections from the Holocaust movie The Pianist, performed by soloist Eric Conway, and a piano concerto composed by Ervin Schulhoff, who was killed in a death camp.

The event also included a candlelight ceremony, in which several grandchildren of Holocaust victims stood on stage in remembrance of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died.

In attendance were public officials and community leaders, including Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, who sat in the balcony during the performance

Mayor Martin O'Malley spoke, telling the crowd that he was there to "commemorate one of the greatest injustices the world has seen."

O'Malley warned of the danger of forgetting the atrocities of the war.

"Each year, the number of survivors grows smaller and smaller," O'Malley said. "That moves the task of remembering on the shoulders of the new generations."

The auditorium was filled with people like Jack Rosenbloom, 76, who went to the concert by himself from his home in Northwest Baltimore. He said he went to pay respects to the millions who died.

"History demands that I'm here," Rosenbloom said.

Rosenbloom said he didn't have any family members who perished in the Holocaust but said he knew he was in the company of many survivors.

Across the room, Kestenberg, 82, who lives in Northwest Baltimore, rose from his chair occasionally to shoot pictures of the event with a disposable camera.

He said he made a pact with himself when he was suffering in the camps, helplessly watching his friends die and laboring to exhaustion each day.

"I promised myself if I lived long enough, I will tell the world what happened to the Jews," he said.

A few months before his 19th birthday, the Nazis pulled Kestenberg from his home near Warsaw, Poland. They starved him and forced him to work in the extermination camps -- Auschwitz, Dachau and others. He does not understand how he survived.

"Somebody was looking out for me," he said.

When Dachau was liberated in 1945 and Kestenberg was set free, his 5-foot-7 frame weighed 75 pounds. Now, he weighs double that.

He still has the identifying tattoo the Nazis gave him on his left arm. The number -- B2369 -- is always fresh in his mind. He doesn't have to look down to recite it.

"I stopped being a person," he said. "I was a number."

Not sure where to go after the war, Kestenberg moved to Baltimore in 1949 to live with an uncle in the city.

He worked in clothing manufacturing and married twice. He has three children and 10 grandchildren.

He said Holocaust remembrance day is never easy for him but is an important time to remember his loved ones.

"My whole family disappeared," he said. "I was the only one left.

And he still grapples with how the Holocaust happened and why it wasn't stopped sooner.

"What did the Jews do that they deserved such treatment?" he asked. "I don't have the answer."

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