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At Holocaust remembrance, Houstonians are reminded ‘there’s work to be done’

April 16, 2018

In the seven decades since 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, society has pledged again and again to never forget the horrors of Nazi genocide — or its lessons.

But remembering now is more crucial than ever, Rabbi Oren Hayon said Sunday.

Hayon, of Congregation Emanu El, spoke to a few hundred Houstonians at a citywide observance of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

People remember the Holocaust so that the “man-made tragedy” will not be repeated elsewhere, he said. But “my friends, I am no longer quite so sure that we are succeeding.”

Hatred, bigotry and violence “continue to metastasize around the globe,” Hayon said. And he, like many, was discouraged last week by a national study of Holocaust knowledge, which found more than 20 percent of Americans younger than 35 are uncertain they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.

“This afternoon, friends, let’s pray hard, because there’s work to be done,” Hayon said.

He asked God to “help us to recall at all times there is no inoculation against another Holocaust except the moral boldness of people who are willing to stand up for truth and for human decency.”

About two dozen Holocaust survivors attended Sunday’s observance; most were in their 80s.

Bill Orlin, 85, was born in Poland and was 7 years old when Nazi troops invaded his village and burned down his home. He and his family fled to several European countries before they left in 1946 for Canada, then the United States.

Orlin attends the Holocaust Remembrance Day every year, he said. When survivors are asked to stand, “every year, there’s fewer and fewer.”

This year’s Yom Hashoah service marked the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest armed resistance Jews staged against the Nazis.

By the time the uprising began in 1943, the Nazis already had deported or murdered 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, a walled-off section of the Polish city where Jewish residents were forced to live. For the 55,000 or so who remained, there was no hope. But on the eve of Passover, when German forces entered the ghetto, Jewish resistors came out fighting. Even though they were outnumbered and inadequately armed, they managed to keep up the fight for nearly a month before just about everyone was captured, killed or deported.

Gilad Katz, consul general of Israel to the Southwest, helped tell the story.

Young men and women threw Molotov cocktails at soldiers with tanks and other armed vehicles, he said. When they ran out of homemade bombs, they fought with sticks, stones and their bare hands.

“I am convinced that deep down, they believed that only if one has noble values that are worth dying for, there is something meaningful to live for,” Katz said. “And oh, boy, did they have moral reasons and values they were willing to die for.”

It was a doomed but noble mission that deserves to be remembered, he said.

“In my eyes, the most important message they transferred to us is this: Jewish life is not worthless,” Katz said. “Jewish life has meaning.”

At Sunday’s service, six Holocaust survivors — accompanied by their families — lit candles in remembrance. Their stories were riveting .

Sol Stopnicki was 16 when he and his family were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. When it was liquidated, his parents were both killed at Auschwitz. Of his large family, Stopnicki and his sister were the only two to survive.

Vera Blum, who was born in Berlin, saw her father deported and her mother sent to a labor camp. Left on their own, she and her sisters went into hiding in a German family’s home until they could escape to Israel.

Monique Ritter was taken in by a French family, who treated her like one of their own and sent her to Catholic school. The only outsiders who knew she was Jewish were the Catholic school’s priest and head nun; they kept her secret.

Ben Waserman, who was born in Berlin in 1929, spoke at Sunday’s service. He was 9 years old when Germans invaded his family’s apartment. His father was arrested when Waserman was 12, and Waserman spent time at a concentration camp.

“We all have much to be thankful for,” he said. “Today and always, we remember and continue to honor the 6 million who were so brutally murdered. Let us pledge to never let this happen again and to help the new generations build a better, safer world.”