Yom HaShoah Memorialized Virtually Across Philly

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Israeli artist Ilana Yahav draws in sand to commemorate Holocast victims.
Israeli artist Ilana Yahav draws in sand to commemorate Holocaust victims. (Courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia)

Jewish organizations moved Yom HaShoah memorial services and educational programs online this year, but the message to never forget remained the same.

First up was the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hosting its annual Holocaust Zikaron BaSalon on April 19. The event, which usually takes place in front of the Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in Center City, was instead held on Zoom.

“Each year we worry about the weather and if we will be able to have our ceremony at the foot of the statue. Never did we anticipate we would never be able to assemble for our ceremony because of a pandemic,” said Arlene Fickler, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.

The main speaker was Philadelphia resident and Holocaust survivor Peter Stern, who spoke about his experiences surviving the war. 

He was born in 1936 in Nuremberg, Germany. His father was an auto mechanic who lost his business to laws stating Jews could not have businesses that dealt with those who were not Jewish. The family was shipped to Latvia in 1941, along with 520 other people.

“Of those 520 people, there were seven Jewish survivors, my mother, brother and I being among them,” Stern said.

They were moved first to a small house outside the Riga Ghetto and then to the ghetto itself, where Stern and his father fixed German vehicles.

The family survived a move to Russia and shared a cell in a men’s civil prison in Germany before they were separated in 1943. Stern’s father was sent to Buchenwald, where he died, while he and his mother and brother were sent to Ravensbruck.

They were imprisoned for more than a year and sent to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car when the camp was emptied at the end of 1944.

“The thing that is prevalent in all the camps, especially in that cattle car, is the stench of death. It comes back to me every time I see cattle,” Stern said.

The camp was liberated by Allied troops in 1945, and the surviving members of his family left Europe for the United States in 1947.

Holocaust survivor Peter Stern
Holocaust survivor Peter Stern speaks during Holocaust Zikaron BaSalon.
(Courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia )

“I always ask the question, ‘Why do we speak?’ Maybe you want somehow to prevent this from happening again. People say history repeats itself. Mark Twain says it doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Ken Burnes said history doesn’t repeat itself, but human nature doesn’t change. I believe we can make a difference. The takeaway is, be involved,” he concluded.

Several artists offered tributes to Holocaust victims during the ceremony.

Violinist Phillip Kates of The Philadelphia Orchestra played a melody composed by Polish musician Jozef Kropinski while he was imprisoned in Birkenau.

Elle Miller, an eighth-grade student at The Shipley School, read her poem about the dehumanization of Jews during the Holocaust, which placed first in the Mordechai Anielewicz Creative Arts Competition.

Israeli artist Ilana Yahav shared a video of herself drawing in sand — first prisoners in Auschwitz, then a yellow Jude badge, then a flowering plant and a dove.

Sarita Gocial, a daughter of two survivors, spoke about her parents’ experiences.

“How could this have happened without people knowing? The truth is, world leaders knew. Those living near the camps knew. It was only when the Allied armies liberated the camps and saw and smelled the horrors there, the world was forced to look,” she said.

Meantime, the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation partnered with the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights in Boise, Idaho, and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee to create Holocaust Education Week, featuring virtual ceremonies and educational resources.

The program started April 20, when PHRF partnered with Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy to distribute 500 candles as part of the #YellowCandle project and host a live lighting ceremony.

Other scheduled programming included a podcast about human rights hosted by Dan Prinzing, executive director at the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights, and conversations with survivors Miriam Kassenoff and Rebbetzin Feige Twerski.

And the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition held its annual Pennsylvania Civic Commemoration of the Holocaust on Zoom on April 21.

“We couldn’t imagine canceling this important annual event. This inclusive online event might allow even more of you, especially survivors who are unable to travel, to attend,” said Mark Zucker, chair of the Board of Directors of the PJC.

Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Harrisburg offered a prayer of welcome and Gov. Tom Wolf submitted a prerecorded statement.

“Even the smallest seed of hate is too much and needs to be eradicated. Thank you for continuing to ensure the memory of these victims is not lost,” he said.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro spoke on the importance of drawing on faith, family and community during difficult times.

He also emphasized the importance of remembrance.

“Through never forgetting, we can chart a better future for all no matter what you look like, or where you come from, or who you pray to or who you love.”

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