Yom ha-Shoah commemorated at community program

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Yom ha-Shoah is the day we honor and remember the victims, survivors and heroes of the Holocaust. This year’s community commemoration, held on April 23 at Temple Emanu-El, Providence, like the whole of Jewish experience, was bittersweet. The event was both heartrending and uplifting as it fulfilled all that Yom ha-Shoah is supposed to be.

The event began with a somber procession of Holocaust victims’ descendants from the Rhode Island Jewish community who lit candles in memory of those they lost. The procession was accompanied by deeply touching music played by harpist Judie Tennenbaum.

In his opening remarks Rabbi Wayne Franklin, of Temple Emanu-El, connected the events of the past with those of today. He reminded everyone that, just as important as it is to remember the past, we must also use those lessons to impact the present and future. As the rabbi made clear, we must be ever-vigilant to genocide, hate and discrimination today so that we can ensure that “Never Again” truly means never again.

The guest speaker was Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, daughter of Tuvia Bielski, the leader of the Bielski Partisans, whose story was featured in the movie “Defiance.” She was introduced by her friend Patricia Raskin who was responsible for bringing her to Providence for the event.

In a voice filled with emotion, Ehrreich related the harrowing story of how her father and two of his brothers (who lost their parents and seven siblings to the Nazis) created a community in the forest and saved the lives of 1,200 Jews. At the same time, they partnered with righteous gentiles, and the Russians, to strike back at the Nazis as Partisans. The Germans feared ambush in the forest so much that they rarely ventured in to attack the community.

Ehrreich also related how much her father, in later life, enjoyed visits from survivors and their descendants. He was prescient when predicting that he would be “famous when I am dead.” Perhaps the greatest statement of “we won” is the estimate that there are 60,000 Jews alive today who trace their lineage to those 1,200 Jews who lived in the forest for three years.

As part of the festivities, Herb Stern received the Never Again Award in recognition of his drive and determination to make sure that Providence has a world-class Holocaust Memorial. Stern stressed that the memorial was the result of a team effort and accepted the award on behalf of all those who tirelessly worked to make the memorial a reality. Stern’s daughter, Cantor Jodi Blankstein, serenaded her father with a moving version of “L’Dor V’Dor.” The award was presented to Stern by Jeffrey Savit, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the event was the coupling of the “El Malei Rachamim” prayer, hauntingly chanted by Cantor Brian Mayer, with the reading aloud of the names of those lost in the Holocaust by their descendants in the community. It was a fitting conclusion to a deeply moving program.

LEV POPLOW is a communications and development consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. He can be reached at levpoplow@gmail.com.