This year’s Yom Hashoa/Holocaust Remembrance Day program at the Jewish Community Center did more than pay tribute to the victims of the genocide.
It also honored the athletes of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, also known as the “Nazi Olympics.”
Following the traditional lighting of six memorial candles by survivors and their families, as well as candles for the righteous by local business leaders Jim Rohr and Tom Usher, retired Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris lit a candle in honor and memory of the athletes who competed in those Games — a first for the Yom Hashoa program.
Harris, together with Barbara and Daniel Shapira, co-chaired the project that brought the just-concluded “Nazi Olympics” exhibit to the August Wilson Center.
Just as the Holocaust has become a seminal moment in Jewish history, Harris described the 1936 Olympics, which are remembered for the track and field victories of black athletes Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, as a “renaissance of the black athlete.”
But he was mindful that Hitler intended the Olympics to be a showcase for Aryan superiority, and he criticized the world powers of the time for not boycotting the Games.
“The United States didn’t do it and other countries didn’t do it,” Harris said, “and I really think that’s a travesty.”
Nearly 800 people packed Levinson Hall at the Squirrel Hill JCC for the annual Yom Hashoa commemoration, which the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh organized.
“It’s a day that makes me feel more Jewish than any other day of the year,” said Daniel Shapira.
This year’s survivors who lit the memorial candles were Walter Boninger, Ruth Drescher, the late Joseph Eaton (for whom his wife, Helen, and son, Jonathan, stood in), Fritz Ottenheimer, Judith Heiser Stein, and Elizabeth and Theodore “Ted” Stern.
While they all told their own unique stories, they struck many common themes. Many remembered the burning (or “bombing”) of their synagogues in their native Germany, the arrests of family members, including, in some cases, their own fathers, and the flight from Germany, which meant salvation and tragedy.
In Boninger’s tragic story, he recalled how the ship his family had boarded in Belgium for the voyage to Chile, the Simon Bolivar, struck a mine in the English Channel. Boninger — a boy at the time — was rescued, but his parents were killed.
But all the stories concluded with how the families settled in the States and rebuilt their lives; in a sense, reminding all that Nazi tyranny did not destroy them.
“My life started out pretty darkly,” said Stein, daughter of the longtime cantor of Congregation B’nai Israel, Mordecai Heiser, “but it ended pretty wonderfully” — a reference to her many children and grandchildren.
As in past Yom Hashoa commemorations, Cantor Moshe Taube chanted Ani Maamin and El Maley Rachamim. Rabbi Mordecai Glatstein led the mourner’s kaddish, and Abe Salem sang the Partisan Song.
Taube, Glatstein and Salem are all survivors.
Event co-chairs Richard Fox and Roberta Weissburg led a responsive reading of the A.E. Housman poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.”
And Leon Zionts sang Hatikva (the national anthem of Israel) and the U.S. National Anthem.
There’s nothing rote about the annual Yom Hashoa program, according to Federation Chair Lou Plung, who opened the program. “We feel the weight of history as we gather here,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)