The rallying cry of “Never again” is arguably most associated with the Holocaust, but in the weeks since the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the phrase has also been adopted in the fight against gun violence.
It was fitting then, perhaps, that on the morning of April 11, walking into the state capitol in Harrisburg, a crowd of people engulfed the main stairway holding signs promoting gun control while upstairs, in the Governor’s Reception Room, a Yom Hashoah ceremony was about to start.
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hosted the 34th annual Civic Commemoration of the Holocaust on April 11, featuring speakers and survivors who marked the occasion in one of many ceremonies across the state and in Philadelphia.
Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg recalled Pope John Paul II’s visit to Yad Vashem, in which he asked, “How can man have such utter contempt for man?”
“Let us reject contempt,” Cytryn said, “and then let us respond with respect and dignity, always treating our neighbors in a dignified manner, and pray that it is our children and grandchildren who learn from our shortcomings to find love for their diverse neighbors in their hearts.
“May this be a year in which we truly transform ‘Never again’ from a slogan into a truth.”
Political figures such as Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Mike Turzai and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack joined others like Tim Crain, director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hall University, and Hannah Adler, a Linglestown Middle School student and Schwab Holocaust Essay winner, to give impassioned remarks, urging the day’s attendees to never forget the Holocaust and learn from its lessons.
“Like the tattooed numbers placed on so many Jewish arms by the Nazis, the Holocaust — its memories of horror, pain, treachery and murder — is tattooed on each one of us,” Turzai said.
Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-District 19) and Rep. Dan Frankel (D-District 23) presented Senate and House resolutions respectively marking the ceremony and its significance, and shared remarks of their own — including Frankel’s personal connection to the Holocaust. His mother-in-law was a survivor.
Frankel explained House Resolution 823, which marked April 8 through 15 as “Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust” and recognizing April 12 as “Holocaust Remembrance Day” in Pennsylvania.
Dinniman also pointed to the righteous who hid Jews. “How many of us today would have taken that risk?” he asked.
A moment of silence preceded a candle lighting in which six electric candles were “lit” by survivors as well as those lighting them in someone’s honor.
Michael Sand, chair of the ceremony, also called on attendees who were children or grandchildren of survivors to stand and share names and stories of their families.
Stack urged for instilling the message in younger generations. He referenced last summer’s march in Charlottesville and the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria to note that “seeds of fascism and hatred are still finding fertile ground on the fringes of our society.”
“Let us raise our voices and say together once again: Never forget. Never forget. Never forget,” he said.
In Philadelphia, ceremonies and events marked Yom Hashoah throughout the week. Abrams Hebrew Academy observed the day with speakers like Marvin Raab, who discussed his parents’ experience in the Holocaust, and students and teachers who are relatives of Holocaust victims and survivors.
A Yom Hashoah ceremony featuring Bettina Hoerlin, author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America, marked the beginning of a week of events at Drexel Hillel, which also included celebrations for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.
The echo of the shofar reverberated on the walls of Congregation Rodeph Shalom on April 15, signaling the beginning of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Jewish Community Relations Council’s 54th annual commemoration of the Holocaust.
“Today we affirm the innocent lives lost in the Holocaust have not and will not be forgotten,” said one speaker during the reading of names as wreaths were placed along the edge of the bimah.
The theme of this year’s ceremony was “Rescuers Among Us,” and stories of Jewish men and women who saved other Jews during the Holocaust were told by a mix of students to a crowd of varying ages.
Nashirah chorale and The ChaiLights A Cappella sang selections such as “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” while survivors and community members lit candles and shared remarks.
Susanna Lachs Adler, chair of the Jewish Federation, noted the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
“Every age needs its heroes, and our time is no exception,” she said, citing Charlottesville, the uptick in anti-Semitism nationwide and globally, and Poland’s controversial law forbidding blaming the country for any crimes committed during the Holocaust.
“History has taught us we cannot be bystanders,” she said. “Every instance of baseless hatred should be a call to action. Anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia — it is all the same. And it is our duty, individually and collectively, to denounce each and every instance of discrimination when we see it.”
Audience members shook their heads as she also referenced — and repeated — the recent survey by the Claims Conference that found 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was.
“We cannot allow that memory to fade,” she said.
Rene Boni and Roslyn Don stood on either side of their mother, Shirley Don, and held on to her throughout the ceremony.
The 89-year-old survivor from Slovakia greeted cousins and friends after the conclusion of the program.
“We come every year with her, and, of course, we see all of our cousins whose family was also survivors — their parents — so we come from a big survivor family that settled in Philadelphia,” Roslyn Don said.
Shirley Don and her late husband, who was also a survivor from Poland whom she met in a displaced persons camp after the war, were part of bringing the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs to Philadelphia, the site of the future Holocaust Memorial Plaza.
Of the plaza, Boni said, “I feel a sense of urgency about [the survivors] getting older and the first witnesses, so I’m so glad that this more permanent thing is going to be there.” l