Friends greeted each other before the ceremony began: “I didn’t know you were involved with this,” said one attendee.
“My parents are survivors. I was born in a displaced persons camp,” the other replied to a shocked expression.
Nowadays, as so many Holocaust survivors have died, it’s up to their children to tell their stories. That starts with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The annual Memorial Ceremony for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs is an event held by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Community Relations Council since 1964.
Philadelphia was one of the first American cities to create a monument in honor of the Holocaust.
The ceremony is usually held at the monument at 16th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but expected rain moved it to Congregation Rodeph Shalom. (Despite the forecast, it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day).
More than 300 people attended, with representatives from the Jewish community as well as other religious leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Jim Kenney and Rep. Dwight Evans (D-District 2).
The ceremony included speeches from local dignitaries; prayers and songs led by Nashirah, the Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia, and ChaiLights A Capella; a keynote address by Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League; and remarks from survivor Manya Frydman Perel.
Teens walked down the aisle toward the bimah and laid down white flowers to represent children who perished.
As first-person accounts of the Holocaust are becoming more scarce, Jake Sztejman, co-vice chair of the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation (PHRF), said it is more important than ever to hear and remember these stories.
Both of his parents were Holocaust survivors, as were his wife’s parents.
His father was born and raised in Poland. During German occupation, he escaped a ghetto but ended up in Siberian work camps, where he met and married Sztejman’s mother.
After the war, they lived in Poland until 1962 when Sztejman was 15, then immigrated to the U.S.
Mim Krik tells a similar story.
Krik, president of the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association and board member of PHRF, is the child of survivors, as is her husband.
Her father was born in Paris but moved back to Poland, growing up in an orphanage. He later joined the Polish army but was captured and taken to Siberia. He eventually escaped and joined the underground movement.
Her mother was born in Poland and lived there until the German occupation.
“Selection day came and her and her sisters were torn from their mother’s arms and put on a truck to a work camp,” Krik said.
After liberation, her parents met, married and moved to Philadelphia.
“They raised their family, which was of the utmost importance because that actually gave validity to their survival,” she said. “It proved that Hitler failed.”
Both Sztejman’s and Krik’s parents and in-laws have since died, but “we’re extremely dedicated that their legacies continue and their voices are heard,” Krik said, “and we keep on telling the stories.”
“My personal idea is to make sure to retell the stories of the Holocaust by also in the light of what’s happening today,” Sztejman added. “With the ethnic cleansing that was in Bosnia, what’s happening right now in Syria, as well as what’s happening here in the United States with cemeteries being attacked and Jewish centers being threatened — it is so important to tell the story of the Holocaust to make sure that it doesn’t happen again because this is the way it started years ago in Germany.”
Sztejman said it made the April 23 event that much more important.
“It’s more important that people are made aware what can happen when a few bad people can influence that,” he said.
Krik said she will continue to do everything in her power to honor her parents’ memories and what they set out to accomplish in their lives after the war.
“My parents had 18 great-grandchildren — that’s an accomplishment,” she noted enthusiastically.
Both Sztejman and Krik highlighted a commonality among children of survivors: They grew up without grandparents.
“It’s very important for me to be very involved in [my children and grandchildren’s] lives because of that,” Krik said.
Not being at the monument made a difference in the ceremony, Krik added, as it has a major impact on the event itself.
But Jake Reiter, board member of PHRF, said though a different location was not optimal, the focus remained on remembrance.
At the monument site, the PHRF is expected to have the Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza completed by 2018, which will include interactive virtual tours of the park with firsthand testimonials.
Through an app, users will be able to see the memorial wall and virtual railroad tracks, giving the user the experience of a trip from a small village to a concentration camp.
“For example, my family lost eight families in a small town in Hungary,” Reiter said. “They were hustled onto a railcar and taken to Auschwitz where they were exterminated. So I can go with my children and, in a less dramatic fashion, obviously, share that experience on my iPad with my kids.
“The park and the features and the content represent a reflection of ‘never again,’” he continued, “and it represents an open, hopeful optimism that we live in a country where these protections are afforded. That’s the collective architectural melding of the content that we are bringing to this wonderful piece of real estate right outside of the Mayor’s Office.”
Samuel Swerdlik was 12 when he endured several concentration camps, though he has since forgotten their names.
The 89-year-old’s eyes swelled with tears as he spoke about his own experiences.
“I don’t talk too much about my story because it brings me to tears, so I don’t tell even my grandchildren,” he said. “I do tell them there are books. In theory, in books, I am [in] all of them, too, that I went through the same thing.”
He recalled his moment of escape.
“I was lucky I didn’t look Jewish,” he said. “Our trains — this I remember as I tell stories about happy things — when the Germans came to bomb the train that took us, it stopped. I jumped out, I grabbed a piece of bread and I ran away.”
He survived alongside an older sister, and said he just hopes people never forget the atrocities.
“Even today, with all the books and all the movies we have, some people say that [the Holocaust] never happened,” he said.
Swerdlik, treasurer of the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and his wife lit a candle in honor of the victims during the ceremony.
He remembered that this ceremony used to garner thousands of people, but has since dwindled drastically. “Hopefully, the second generation will take over,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll continue doing the job that we’re doing.”