The six Holocaust survivors who shared their stories Monday at the annual Yom Hashoa Program in Squirrel Hill all did the same thing without exception.
They ended their talks by listing the number of children and grandchildren born to them since the war. In some cases, those children shared the podium at the Jewish Community Center and lit candles on their parents’ and grandparents’ behalf.
How fitting, since the theme of this year’s program was “Liberation and Hope.”
“Out of the depths of the Holocaust,” said Sam Gottesman, one of the survivors who spoke, “new life and lives occurred.”
For the first time in years, there was no keynote speaker at the annual Yom Hashoa program. Samantha Patty, senior associate at the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, previously said the organizers decided no one could speak on the theme better than the people who were actually liberated.
Indeed, the survivors who recounted their time in Displaced Persons camps following the war, spoke of them as places where they were sometimes reunited with missing relatives, met and married their future spouses, went to schools and took time to decide where and how they would restart their lives.
This year’s survivors who lit memorial candles for the 6 million Jewish victims were Gottesman, Irene Berkowitz, Sarah Luel Brett, Francine Gelernter, Irene Furst (represented by her daughter, Linda Hurwitz, on the podium) and Sam Weinreb.
In speaking of her life post-Holocaust, Brett, who was reunited with her father in a Displaced Person Camp and married in the United States, said, “I didn’t want to dwell on the past, nor did I want to proceed as a victim. I wanted to start a new life.”
In fact, Hurwitz, the daughter of survivors, said she found it “inspirational” how her parents started over and raised a family.
But no one forgot the past.
“The saddest part of our lives is that we both lost our entire families,” said Weinreb, who spoke for himself and his wife, Goldie.
The six memorial candles for the 6 million Jews weren’t the only ones lit.
Sister Maureen O’Brien, director of campus ministry at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, lit a candle for the many righteous gentiles who risked the lives to save Jews.
“I ask your forgiveness for those of us who did not share their (the righteous’) sense of courage, love and integrity,” she said.
And for the first time, a candle was lit for the liberators — Allied soldiers who found the camps and freed their inhabitants.
Ray Bartolo of Grove City, an Army veteran of the 97th Infantry Division, one of the soldiers who liberated Flossenberg concentration camp, lit that candle. He recalled coming across the skin and bone survivors in that camp.
“When they realized these newcomers were Americans,” Bartolo recalled, the survivors came out of the barracks “hugging and kissing us … and shouting for joy, ‘free, free at last.’ ”
In an opening speech, Daniel Shapira, co-chair of the Holocaust Center Membership Campaign, which supports the work of the center, noted that each of the five co-chairs had given $10,000 to the campaign.
What made that significant, he noted, was that three of the chairs are Jewish, and two are not. The work of the center, he said, transcends religious lines.
Holocaust Commission Chair David Sufrin welcomed the hundreds of people who packed Levinson Hall for the service. Canter Ben Rosner led them in “Ani Ma’amin” (I believe) and “K’eyl Maley Rachamim;” and Rabbi Mordecai Glatstein led the Mourners Kaddish.
Kevin Malesic, who placed third in the 2010 Holocaust Arts & Writing Competition, read his winning poem: “The White Rose of Hope,” included at the end of this story. Kevin is a freshman at Baldwin High School.
Finally, as he does every year, Abe Salem, a survivor from Poland, sang the “Partisan Song” in Yiddish.
Hurwitz, a former director of the Holocaust Center, said the song doesn’t just honor those Jews who picked up arms to resist, as did the Vilna Ghetto survivors who sang it.
“To me, every person resisted,” she said. “It (the song) was to build up your hope, to keep you going.”
The White Rose of Hope
There was nobody there.
Nobody with ears to hear the cries of the unheard victims.
Nobody with enough courage to die for the dying.
Nobody with any idea of how much suffering they had undergone.
Those with the Star of David, neglected.
Then, a lone group spoke when nobody else dared.
The White Rose knew that death was right around the corner.
This eternal flame of Germany would soon die out.
White Rose leaflets continued and continued,
Becoming widespread, becoming known as the truth.
Their hope for the nation was not quite appreciated by those in power.
Looking straight into the sharp blade of the guillotine,
Sophie Scholl walked to her death,
The death given to her by Nazi terrorists.
“Long live freedom!” were the last words that Hans spoke.
Christoph gave his life, his world, for those with a Star of David.
And although still neglected, those with the Star had hope
Hope of something they had never known.
Hope of freedom.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)