SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The atmosphere was somber yet uplifting at Congregation Oheb Shalom Sunday, May 1, as the South Orange-Maplewood community united to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to pledge to work for change to prevent similar atrocities.
The South Orange / Maplewood Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Committee held its 39th annual Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service, a staple event in the community. This year’s service was unique, however. Not only was the usual preceding ceremony and march from Spiotta Park canceled — the ceremony was instead held out of the rain inside Oheb Shalom — but participants, who were joined by Boy Scout Troop 118, met at Kol Rina on Valley Street in South Orange, two hours before the interfaith service began, to make signs for the march.
The signs — with phrases such as “All lives matter,” “Connection,” “Diversity,” “Grace” and “Hope” — were beautifully decorated and eye-popping, drawing attention to their messages of unity and tolerance. After receiving feedback that the march would be more powerful with a concrete theme, committee member Margie Freeman suggested making signs beforehand to transmit a message.
The theme of the preservice ceremony and march this year: We must provide care and support for the many refugees in our world.
“Here today, we wanted to devote the gathering prior to the service at the march to the plight of refugees,” Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom said, before stepping back so that participating clergy could speak. The clergy members shared personal words of wisdom, personal narratives and poetry with the assembled residents, each of whom carried a handmade sign.
“Welcome is a choice we can all make,” the Rev. Rick Boyer of Prospect Presbyterian Church said.
His words were echoed by the Rev. Gayle Taylor from Edinburgh, Scotland, who had previously attended the 29th annual Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Service. She explained that she had found the original service incredibly moving.
“We are so connected as human beings,” Taylor said. “As far from home as you may be, a welcome gives you a feeling of belonging and a feeling of connection.”
And rather than reflecting on past tragedies, the religious leaders looked to the future.
“What is it to be a human being? Something in us is the victim, something in us is the perpetrator and something in us has the power to change,” Martha Gallahue, representing the Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, said. “In the face of so much suffering, nothing less than our own transformation is called for, a transformation to make things better.”
And the clergy members agreed that things need to begin to be rectified now.
“We come together to mourn so many who were murdered because they were different,” Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El said. “Today the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II.”
The struggles and triumphs of refugees were the focus of this year’s remembrance service. Keynote speaker and survivor Ilona Medwied addressed not just the horrors that occurred during the war, but also the trials of living in a displaced person camp, being unsure of one’s future.
“I think that most people innocently think that the camps were liberated and that we survivors just moved on,” Medwied said. “For those of us who lost everyone and everything, it was difficult to figure out what was next for us.”
Medwied was born in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1936 and, when she was just 3 years old, the Germans invaded her home and forced the Jews into ghettos. In 1942, everyone in Medwied’s family, except herself and her mother, was deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
“The Nazis stole my childhood,” Medwied said.
Shortly after the deportation, Medwied’s mother and other Jews remaining in the ghetto smuggled Medwied outside the gates to a gentile woman who made Medwied part of her family. Not long after she left the ghetto, her mother was sent to a labor camp.
“I am one of the hidden children of the Holocaust,” Medwied said, saying that she lived with this gentile woman, Kazimiera Berczynska, and her family until the war ended. During this time, the Berczynska family moved eight times, both to find work and to keep Medwied safe.
When Medwied was 9, she and her mother moved back to Czestochowa for a year. Prior to the Holocaust, there had been approximately 30,000 to 40,000 Jews in the city, but only 1,500 remained afterward. At first she was hesitant to go with her mother, as she had grown very close to the Berczynska family, but she eventually did go.
After their year in Czestochowa, where they remained because Medwied fell ill, mother and daughter eventually ended up in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart had been heavily bombed during the war, leaving behind streets with nothing but rubble, but Medwied still described the DP camp as “the best time of her young life.”
While in Stuttgart, Medwied was finally able to go to school and make friends. Her mother remarried and had a son, giving Medwied a little brother.
“For the first time I was able to attend school and actually feel like a kid. I was able to admit I was Jewish without being afraid,” Medwied said. “My best friend was a young girl named Hadassah, who had lost both her parents.”
In the DP camp, Medwied grew to love dancing, saying that “maybe it was an expression of my newfound freedom” as it was a “distinct contrast to hiding.” And she remembers that when Israel declared its independence in 1948, “I thought I would burst with happiness.”
Still, the path forward was not easy. Living in the DP camp could only be temporary until a more permanent home solution was found. Eventually they were able to board a ship and two weeks later arrived in New York. Medwied joked that she “had to learn English real fast” when she was enrolled in middle school in New York, a difficult experience as the English lessons she and her mother had received in Stuttgart consisted of only trite phrases like “hello,” “goodbye” and “how are you?”
“I wanted to assimilate,” she said. “As hard as I tried to forget, certain memories were embedded in my brain.” She added that for many years the sounds of thunderstorms frightened her.
Today Medwied lives in San Diego with her husband, Bill, and the two will be celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary later this year. The couple has three daughters and seven grandchildren.
But the memories still live on. Cooper said in his opening address that memory and history are different and that, for Jews, history takes a backseat to memory.
“For Jewish people, Passover concluded yesterday. It has been said that Passover for the Jewish people is not about history, but about memory,” Cooper said during the service. “Jewish history is not about what happened to someone else; it is about what happened to our family.
“Holocaust Remembrance Day is not about history; it is about memory,” he continued. “In remembering, we link ourselves to the past and we open a door to the future.”
A main part of the service was the lighting of the memorial candles. It is a Jewish tradition to light yahrzeit candles on the anniversary of someone’s death and at other times in the Jewish calendar.
The number of candles lit varies among Holocaust memorial services, with some lighting six candles to represent the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and others lighting 11 candles to represent the total 11 million killed in the camps, including Jews, Roma, gays, blacks, political dissidents, the disabled and others. This year’s SOMA service lit 21 candles on three menorahs because, according to Cooper, recently released documents from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum show that through the more than 42,500 forced labor camps and ghettos, more than 15 million people were murdered.
The candles were lit by Holocaust survivors Helen Paktor, Gerda Bikales, Norbert Bikales, Hedy Brasch, Danuta Koslowski, Gina Lanceter, Jean Gluck, Nessa Ben Asher, Robert Max, Paulette Dorflaufer, Hana Kesselman, Olga Meczer, Krysia Ejcner Plochocki, Adele Rapaport and Nusha Wyner; Marsha Kreuzman was absent.
The final candle was lit by Medwied.
After Medwied spoke, Barbara Wind was presented the Sister Rose Thering Holocaust Education Award on behalf of Pearl Randall Lehrhoff, who received the award in 2012. Wind has served as director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest since September 2000 and was a close friend of Thering.
The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Wind said she believes Holocaust education is vital, as it can lead to a better future.
“When my parents were growing up in Poland and Romania, they never imagined that their lives would be disrupted the way they were,” Wind said, explaining that her parents had met in a DP camp and were unsure for a long time of their next move. While they wanted to move to Israel, they knew it would be a very difficult life — too difficult for Wind’s grandmother, who was 70 at the time. Still, she is amazed by the Holocaust survivors who did move to Israel and join the army to fight in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
“My parents taught me that one need not be afraid of people who are different,” Wind said, adding that each week on the Sabbath, her family would sing Psalm 115, which refers to “God-fearers,” the meaning of which eluded her for many years. “What it means is those who believed in God and believed, through their belief in God, that all mankind is made in God’s image and deserves respect.”
In addition to the stories told at the service, there was a great deal of music, ranging from uplifting to solemn. The candle-lighting ceremony was underscored by cellist Marty Steinberg, who donates his time to the service each year. In addition to piano accompaniment by David Davis, the interfaith choir sang psalms and prayers; the choir was led by Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom. Cantor Perry Fine, of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, also sang a moving solo.
Event photos by Yael Katzwer
Black-and-white photos courtesy of Sheryl Hoffman