“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

In the wake of tragedy, Jewish community works to heal, and to keep history alive

Hundreds pack Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center to celebrate survivors and those who saved them


Holocaust survivors and their descendants have told their stories over the past seven decades, sharing the terrible miseries inflicted by the Nazis during World War II with audiences of every age and religious persuasion to somehow keep the atrocities from ever being repeated.

But the Yom HaShoah Community Holocaust Commemoration hosted by the Jewish Federation of San Diego County took on a fresh urgency Sunday, just over 24 hours after a gunman killed one person and wounded three others at the Chabad of Poway on the final day of Passover.

“We prepare to say never again, but it happened yet again,” said Barbara Ostroff, who served on the committee that organized the event and was a friend of Lori Kaye’s, the woman who was killed in Poway on Saturday. “We are shaken to the core but we must continue.”

The commemoration at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center was planned long before 19-year-old John T. Earnest of Rancho Peñasquitos allegedly entered the synagogue in Poway with a semi-automatic rifle late Saturday morning and began shooting.

Earnest, who is being held without bail at San Diego Central Jail on suspicion of one count of murder and three charges of attempted murder, is a self-admitted white supremacist who said he posted a lengthy manifesto on social media prior to the attack.

The annual Yom HaShoah ceremony honors the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and those who risked their own lives to protect them during the darkest years of World War II.

Organizers said the remembrance is crucial in educating younger generations about the Holocaust and for promoting the ideas that love always prevails over hate and darkness can only be overcome by light.

“It’s important to remember events like the Holocaust because so much was lost, and by forgetting we make it more possible for something like that to happen again,” said Michael Jeser, the Jewish Federation president.

“Events like (Saturday’s) remind us that hate is not that far beneath the surface,” he said.

Several of those who survived the horrors of World War II said Sunday that there were similarities between today and what they endured so many years ago.

Francis Gelbart was born in Krakow, Poland almost 90 years ago. She stayed alive through five concentration camps during the war, although her siblings were not so fortunate. She made her way safely to the United States in 1949, but even today remains skeptical of crowds.

“It’s a funny feeling at the back of my mind,” said Gelbart, who wrote a memoir about her experience. “I prefer not to be at any gatherings.”

Gelbart said she was attending her granddaughter’s baby shower when she heard about what happened at the Chabad of Poway.

“It’s upsetting, depressing and shocking,” she said.

San Diego police and private security guards patrolled inside the community center and across the grounds throughout the day, screening attendees for weapons before they were welcomed to the free event.

Philip Pressel escaped the Nazi concentration camps through the kindness of strangers, hiding in various cities across France until he and his family escaped the country.

“We were on the run for five years hiding from the Nazis,” said Pressel, who is 81 and now lives in downtown San Diego. “I’m sad about the Holocaust. I’m sad about what happened (in Poway) and I’m sad about Pittsburgh.”

Six months to the day before gunfire erupted inside Chabad of Poway, another avowed white supremacist entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and began shooting. That attack claimed 11 lives and injured seven people.

Pressel, who memorialized his World War II experiences in a memoir he titled “They are Still Alive,” blamed President Donald Trump for exacerbating distrust between races by using charged rhetoric to talk about immigrants and others.

“He is the leading hater in the country,” Pressel said of the president. “I know I’m getting political but he has allowed hatred and discrimination. He rules with anger.”

Hours after the Poway shooting, Trump offered his condolences from the White House.

“My deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected,” he told reporters Saturday. “At this moment, it looks like a hate crime. Hard to believe, hard to believe.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, visited the Chabad of Poway earlier Sunday before attending the Yom HaShoah at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.

He told the overflow audience that they and their elected officials need to do more to call out and stop extremism everywhere.

“This isn’t just an attack on a Chabad congregation, this was an attack on all of us,” he said. “I’ve had enough with thoughts and prayers. I want them to enforce norms and values. I’m sorry, but there’s a through line between Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway.”

In 2017, white nationalists converged in Charlottesville, Va., carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us” in unison.

One woman was killed when one of the protesters drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. In the hours and days after the event, Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the dispute.

Greenblatt also called on technology executives to do a better job restricting hateful communications on social media.

“We’re long overdue for Silicon Valley to step up and protect their platforms from hate before it takes root, and finally once and for all turn back this hate before it consumes us all,” he said. “Make no mistake: this isn’t about politics. It’s about principles.”

The commemoration lasted more than two hours, and attracted more people than the 600 seats inside the auditorium. It featured a presentation of colors from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Color Guard and a candle-lighting ceremony to honor Holocaust survivors who passed away in the last year.

It also featured Rose Schindler, who over the decades has told her story of surviving Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe to hundreds of audiences across San Diego and the nation.

“Today is a very sad day,” said Schindler, who helped organize the commemoration. “I am so upset at what happened at the Poway synagogue. I can’t believe this happened. It brings back what happened in 1939.”

Yom HaShoah, formally known as Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-leG’vurah, which translates to “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” was officially recognized by the Israeli Parliament in 1951 and is celebrated by Jewish communities worldwide.

As more survivors pass away, Jewish leaders urge the sons and daughters of holocaust survivors along with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to keep telling their stories.

source: San Diego Union-Tribune

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