South Orange–Maplewood community remembers the Holocaust at annual interfaith service

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SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange and Maplewood community came together on April 18 for “Remember & Tell: The SOMA Interfaith Holocaust Service,” to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Despite the annual event being held virtually this year, it was incredibly poignant; the virtual platform actually allowed for more speakers, with attendees hearing from several Holocaust survivors.

“It has been a long time since we were here together at Prospect for an Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance service, and, unfortunately, this is another year where we can’t be together, even though we are hosting,” the Rev. Rick Boyer, of Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, said. “It is a disappointment for all of us to not be physically present, and yet the medium that we are using has some advantages and some opportunities for us. We will see different clergy praying in their worship spaces; that is something we don’t have an opportunity to do every year. In fact, it is something we don’t have an opportunity to do ever in some of our smaller buildings. Additionally, we will see and hear stories of survivors told by survivors.”

Boyer co-hosted the event with Rabbi Daniel Cohen, who has been with Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange since 1992.

“Every year for almost 30 years, this commemoration has been a reminder to me of how important it is, as Rev. Boyer said, to look back and remember history,” Cohen said. “This commemoration begins with us remembering and mourning the 6 million people who were murdered by the Nazi regime simply because they were Jewish and millions of others who were also murdered because of who they were, what they believed or who they loved. It is a reminder of what can happen when hate takes over a society. And it is a reminder to us each and every year that the words ‘never again’ are not mere words. They must be a solemn commitment by all of us. 

“And yet, approaching this year’s commemoration feels a little bit different, because this year ‘never again’ really feels as if it’s turned into ‘yet again,’” he continued. “Yet again we have seen what happens when hate is allowed to crawl out from under its rock, when hate becomes increasingly normalized in a society. Yet again we have seen what happens when good people don’t stand up immediately and denounce ugliness and violence. Yet again we have seen that when the hate starts with the Jewish community, it doesn’t stop there. When the hate starts with the black community, it doesn’t end there. Yet again we have seen that when hate starts anywhere, it doesn’t stop there, it doesn’t stay there. It quickly metastasizes. And so those who use anti-Semitic rhetoric will be quick very often to use racial slurs. Those who look to take away rights of the LGBTQ+ community are not going to stop there; they’re going to take away the rights of others in our society. And so this year’s commemoration is not just a remembrance; it is also a reaffirmation of our commitment as people of faith, from all faiths, or from no faith, to standing together, to pushing back against the ugliness, and to recognizing that mere words such as ‘never again’ don’t do anything — our action is what’s called for.”

Each year at this interfaith service, the Sister Rose Thering Holocaust Education Award is given to a deserving community member who has emulated Thering, who worked tirelessly during her life to combat anti-Semitism, increase Holocaust education and build a bridge of interfaith collaboration. Thering was one of the founders of this interfaith service.

As this event could not be held last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 awards were given on April 18 to Holocaust survivor Fred Heyman and Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, respectively.

Heyman, who was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1929 and witnessed the rise and fall of Nazism, was presented his award by Howard Goldberg, one of his 52 “twins.” Through the “Twin With a Survivor” program, Heyman and many other survivors have been partnered with b’nai mitzvah students; the survivors are able to share the student’s bar or bat mitzvah, which they usually did not have as children due to the Holocaust, and in return they share their war experiences, which the bar or bat mitzvah student promises to share in 2045, 100 years after the war ended, to ensure the world doesn’t forget the stories of Holocaust survivors, who by 2045, will likely all be deceased.

“Fred, with his parents, survived the pogroms of the Nazi regime, the Nuremberg Laws, the Night of Broken Glass — when he walked to school across broken glass. Then, at 9 years old, he saw his school and the adjacent synagogue in flames. That practically ended his education,” Goldberg shared, saying that he does not want to wait until 2045 to share Heyman’s story. After the war, Heyman and his parents moved to the United States, where Heyman returned to school, though his learning was again interrupted when he was drafted into the Army to serve in North Korea. Heyman did ultimately graduate from high school, continuing his studies on his own while serving in the Army, and from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in electrical engineering. 

Heyman — who has two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild — has served with the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest and the Holocaust Advisory Committee of Jewish Family Services; Heyman has delivered more than 450 speeches about the Holocaust and his firsthand experiences to more than 55,000 listeners. 

“I will treasure this award because Sister Rose Thering changed my life when I needed it,” Heyman said while holding his plaque. Heyman said that, until his wife died in 2004, he had never publicly spoken about being a survivor. But that changed when he joined the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest. “The activities of the Holocaust Council awoke a passion in me and the need to talk about the Holocaust. Where did that energy come from? Surrounded by dedicated Holocaust survivors and volunteers, I could feel their energy around me.”

Though he had heard Thering’s name from many volunteers, he first got to meet her as she was retiring, and he later visited her at her convent in Wisconsin. 

“This is what I said, ‘Sister Rose, you do not know me, my name is …’ and she interrupted me and said, ‘I know who you are.’ We shook hands,” Heyman said. “That handshake was the source of the energy.”

Cantor Perry Fine of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston presented the 2021 award to Lippitz, who was one of the first two female cantors to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1987.

“My dear Rikki, I can think of no one more deserving of this award than you. For the past 34 years you have served this community faithfully as cantor and co-religious leader of Oheb Shalom Congregation,” Fine said. “Throughout these years, you have been a source of warmth and graciousness, serving as an example of the ideals and values espoused by Sister Rose and embodied in this service of remembrance. 

“As someone who has helped guide the music for this service for so many years, it is hard to imagine what this interfaith Holocaust service would have looked like without you,” he continued. “Over these many years, as cofounder and codirector of Kol Dodi Chorale of MetroWest, and guest conductor of Voices in Harmony, the interfaith chorale of Essex County, through music you have helped keep alive the memory of the Shoah, the Holocaust, and been a voice of tolerance and compassion in our own day.”

Lippitz, who later in the service chanted “El Maleh Rachamim,” the Jewish prayer for the soul of a person who has died, spoke about her relationship with Thering.

“Sister Rose, whose memory remains a blessing to every one of us, was part of the Oheb Shalom family. She was a kindred activist to all the cantors and rabbis of this extended community, and she prayed amongst us every Yom Kippur, sitting in the first row of this congregation. We understood one another as women and as sister Midwesterners who were both raised with a strong sense of respect for others, personal integrity and community spirit,” Lippitz said. “Her courage to speak truth to power continually inspired me. She embodied the character in Bereshit Rabbah, a rabbinic commentary on the book of Genesis, who protests daily in Sodom and Gomorrah. When taunted that the protests will not change anyone, she says, ‘I’m protesting so that they do not change me.’”

During the service, Holocaust survivors lit yahrzeit, or memorial, candles for those who have died. Before lighting their candle, each survivor, including Heyman, spoke briefly of their experiences during the war.

Holocaust survivor Hedy Brasch, who was born in Miskolc, Hungary, in 1930, spoke of overcoming the atrocities of the Holocaust to eventually graduate from New York University in 1955 with a degree in occupational therapy and to get married. 

“I had a wonderful childhood until 1942, when my father, Alexander, was taken away to a labor camp never to be heard from again. In 1944, my sister, Eva, my mother, Elizabeth, and I were moved to the Miskolc ghetto and later deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. Eva and I were separated from our mother and sent to Bremen, Germany, to work as forced laborers. We barely survived a death march at Bergen-Belsen, where we were liberated by the British in April 1945,” said Brasch, who is a member of the board of associates for the Center for Holocaust/Genocide Studies at Drew University and received an honorary doctorate from Drew in 2012. “I have shared my life story with over a thousand high school and college students in the hope of educating them about the dangers of anti-Semitism and bigotry.”

Holocaust survivor Paulette Korssia Wolfe Dorflaufer was born in Marseilles, France, in May 1943 and had nine older siblings.

“My father was taken by the Nazis in January of 1943, was gassed in March at Sobibor. In 1944, when I was an infant, my mother and five of my siblings were rounded up by the Nazis and went to Auschwitz. While hospitalized at the age of 1, a Gestapo came looking for me and tried to take me away. I was rescued by a heroic nurse who claimed that I was her child,” Dorflaufer said, explaining that she lived in an Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants orphanage until she was adopted by the Wolfe family of South Orange when she was 4 years old. “My birth mother and father and five siblings perished in the Holocaust,” she said, adding that she has since met her three surviving siblings, who still live in France, and now has three children and seven grandchildren.

Unable to speak for herself, Holocaust survivor Adele Rapaport was joined by her daughter, Francine Nelson, who told her mother’s story. Rapaport was born in Poland in 1924 to a family of six children.

“Her happy family life ended with the German invasion in 1939; my mother was 15 years old at that time,” Nelson said, detailing her mother’s move to two different ghettos. “In 1944, Adele’s two younger sisters were taken away by the Nazis. One of her younger brothers was duped into thinking he would get food if he volunteered to go to a so-called work camp. None of them were heard from again. The rest of the family was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and only Adele and her sister Esther survived to move on to Bergen-Belsen and then Magdeburg.”

Rapaport, who is turning 97 this month, has two daughters, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Holocaust survivor Danuta Kozlowski lit her candle in memory of her godmother, Wladyslawa Ghoms, “the Angel of Lvov,” who was honored at Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, as a righteous gentile for providing false documents, money and food to Jews and others escaping death during the Holocaust.

“I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was 6 years old when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939,” Kozlowski said, explaining that her father was arrested and her family was exiled to Siberia for two years. “At age 8, I became blind and deaf due to starvation and illness. I finally escaped with my family and we made our way to Persia and Palestine and eventually to England, where I met my husband.” Kozlowski, whose husband died in 2013, has three children and 11 grandchildren.

Born in Germany in 1930, Holocaust survivor Hanna Keselman moved to France with her family. They ultimately attempted to move to the United States but were turned away because her mother had been born in Poland. 

“Polish-born people were not welcome here,” Keselman said. “I was separated from my parents for four years, from the age of 8 on. First I was sent to Switzerland and later back to France, where I lived in three Jewish children’s homes run by the OSE. When my father was arrested, he was sent to a camp called Drancy. He managed to escape from the train that was taking him from Drancy to Auschwitz. This was in 1943, when we were finally reunited. Unfortunately we were arrested by the Italian army, who took us first up into the Alps and later they took us with them on the train back into Italy when Italy declared armistice on Sept. 8, 1943. Unfortunately, we were under German occupation again and had to hide again.”

Keselman was hidden in a Catholic convent until June 8, 1944, the liberation of Rome, when her mother came to be reunited with her.

“I found out that my father had been arrested again two weeks before the liberation of Rome, and we never heard from him again,” said Keselman, who eventually moved to the United States and now has one son and four grandchildren.

Survivor Gerda Bikales, who wrote the memoir “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Holocaust Childhood,” now has two advanced degrees and has two children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“My father was able to leave for the United States, but my mother and I were unable to obtain the necessary visas to follow,” Bikales said of her experiences following Kristallnacht. “It was a separation that was to last eight and a half years. As the persecutions accelerated, my mother and I were constantly on the run, from Germany to Belgium and then in various places in France. We narrowly escaped the fate of most Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.”

Gerda Bikales’ husband, Norbert Bikales, who ultimately came to this country at age 17 and earned a doctorate, also spoke about his experiences during the Holocaust.

“I was born 92 years ago in Berlin, Germany. After my parents and my brother were deported to Poland, I was sent in 1939 on the Kindertransport to France. I spent most of the war years in various children’s homes in France, cared for by OSE, a French Jewish welfare organization that saved me and thousands of other Jewish children,” Norbert Bikales said. “Through the end of the war, I managed to escape over the mountains into Switzerland. Some time later I learned through the International Red Cross that my brother, Richard, had been able to survive the terrible persecutions and was now living in Austria. We were able to meet a few months later at the Austrian-Swiss border, and he gave me the devastating news that our parents had been murdered in Belzec, one of the early killing centers in Poland.”

In addition to the Holocaust survivors, several local clergy spoke about the Holocaust and current human rights issues. Each of these speakers ended their part by saying: “Oh God, teach us the lessons of history so that we stand up, speak out and protect the vulnerable.”

Father Jim Worth of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Maplewood spoke about religion-based bigotry; the Rev. Valencia Norman of First Presbyterian and Trinity Church in South Orange discussed the plague of anti-LGBTQ violence and mistreatment; the Rev. Robert Grant Mansfield of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood tackled misogyny and sexism; Rabbi Rachel Marder of Congregation Beth El spoke about the rise in white supremacy in our nation today; Rabbi Alexandra Klein of TSTI spoke about the refugee crisis, relating it to borders being closed to Jews prior to and during the Holocaust; and Brother Ashraf Latif, ameer and president at the NIA Masjid and Community Center, discussed how radical ideologies lead people to focus on differences rather than the ways in which people are connected to one another.

Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom led attendees in reciting the mourners’ kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead.

“When we say the kaddish, it is not merely a prayer to memorialize those who have passed on. It is also our affirmation that, despite tragedy, despite grief and loss, life can still be good, life can still be uplifting and fulfilling,” Cooper said.

One of the event’s last speakers was Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, delivering a final prayer.

“May we be reminded that the way we treat each other is a direct reflection of how we treat you, God. To protect humanity blesses you, but to scapegoat a people, a race, a religion, an ethnicity desecrates your name,” Olitzky said. “God, may we always remember, may we remember the horror, may we remember the unimaginable loss, the hateful rhetoric and isolated acts of violence that were catalysts for plans for mass extermination. May we remember and mourn the 6 million Jewish souls and over 15 million lives taken from this world far too soon, victims of the murderous Nazi regime. And may we remember to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

“‘Never again,’ we say. We pray that ‘never again’ means never again to anyone, and we promise that never again will we stand idly by and remain silent when ruthless and murderous dictators mass murder entire peoples,” he continued. “And we repent, we repent for we acknowledge that even today when we say ‘never again,’ we have been far too silent, we have been too silent when the Uighur Muslim community has been rounded up in China and placed in concentration camps. We have been too silent when those seeking asylum have been put in cages or turned away at our borders, no different than when the United States refused to allow passengers on the St. Louis to disembark on our shores, many instead returning to Europe and being marched into gas chambers. We have been too silent when dictators across the globe look to increase their nuclear stockpiles with threats of global annihilation. And we have been too silent when elected officials are voted into office on a wave of white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry. Give us the strength, the courage and the power of our collective voice to say ‘never again’ for everyone.”