“In the afternoon I did a round of the hospital barracks one more time. … A young girl called me. She was sitting bolt upright in her bed, eyes wide open. This girl has thin wrists and a peaky little face. She is partly paralyzed, and has just been learning to walk again. … ‘Have you heard? I have to go.’ We look at each other for a long moment. It is as if her face has disappeared; she is all eyes. Then she says in a level, gray little voice, ‘Such a pity, isn’t it? That everything you have learned in life goes for nothing.’ And, ‘How hard it is to die.’ Suddenly the unnatural rigidity of her expression gives way and she sobs. … ‘Oh, why wasn’t I allowed to die before?’ Later, during the night, I saw her again, for the last time.”
Community Day School student Nealey Barak read the above excerpt on Thursday, May 2, during the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s annual observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the JCC Katz Auditorium.
This year’s service, titled “Women and the Holocaust,” is also the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s 2018-19 program theme. Director Lauren Bairnsfather explains, “The stories of women are neglected in the historical record, in general, and specifically in the ways that women experienced the Holocaust as women.” The ceremony featured short readings from women’s diaries read by Community Day School students.
The commemoration, attended by more than 400 people, was a mixture of music, prayer, readings and candle lightings, including emotional performances of “Ani Ma’amin” (sung by Jews in Warsaw, Lublin, Lodz and Bialystok as they were taken to their death) and “Keyl Maley Rachamim” (a traditional Ashkenazi funeral prayer chanted in memory of the victims of the Holocaust) performed by Cantor Moshe Taube, a Pittsburgh native and a Holocaust survivor saved by Oskar Schindler.
This year’s ceremony made special note of the terrorist attacks at both the Tree of Life building and Chabad of Poway. Police officers, paramedics and EMTs, firefighters, 911 operators and dispatchers, and other public safety personnel were honored for their service during the attack on Oct. 27. Judah Samet, a survivor of both the Holocaust and the Pittsburgh massacre, and Wendell Hissrich, director of the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, lit a candle for the victims of both shootings.
Additionally, Rabbi Cheryl Klein of Dor Hadash gave the service’s invocation, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light led Kaddish and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha closed the ceremony with a rendition of “Partisan Song” in both Yiddish and English.
After the lighting of six candles for the 6 million Jews murdered, candles were lit for the liberators who rescued the Jews in concentration camps, veterans who served in World War II and survivors of the Holocaust. A final candle was lit by Martina Kopf, granddaughter of Righteous Among the Nations Ludovif Repas. Repas provided two Jewish families with false identity papers. Because of this act, Yad Vashem bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 2016 to the Christian native of Slovakia. His granddaughter explained, during a moving speech, that she only recently became aware of his bravery and spoke of the pride she felt in his acts.
Leon Zionts sang both the American and Israeli anthems and Bronwyn Banerdt performed several pieces on cello during the commemoration.
Reflecting on this year’s program, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Jeff Finkelstein said, “There were many powerful moments in this year’s Yom HaShoah commemoration, including remembering the 11 Pittsburgh victims of Oct. 27, honoring first responders and hearing from the daughter of a Righteous Among the Nations. But seeing a Holocaust survivor who also survived the shooting at the Tree of Life building shows me the strength we must all have in being resilient in the face of adversity. Together, in unity, our community will be strong.”
Asked why services like this continue to be needed, Bairnsfather replied, “Last year, I would have responded that it is important to preserve the memory of the Holocaust for its own sake. I still feel that, but it is now more important than ever, with the present threat of anti-Semitism in the United States, to have a reminder of where that can lead.”
Temple Sinai Executive Director Drew Barkley agreed with Bairnsfather, saying, “As I listened to the very moving stories, I thought about the importance of education to make sure it never happens here in America.” PJC
David Rullo is a local freelance writer.