After 63 Years, Question Remains: ‘How Could This Have Happened?’



For the second year in a row, the Philadelphia Jewish community gathered inside the sanctuary of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City for the annual Memorial Ceremony for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs.

Even though the skies were clear — and the sun was out, and the temperature rose to the low 70s — the two-hour ceremony was relocated indoors, in lieu of its customary location in front of the Monument to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The decision to relocate was actually made on Friday, when the forecast predicted showers for Sunday, in order to allow time to inform those involved, said Amy Blum, director of the Center for Holocaust Awareness.

The annual event on Sunday, May 4, was sponsored jointly by the Memorial Committee for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Philadelphia.

More than 800 people looked on as the commemoration commenced with a candlelighting ceremony, the presentation and laying of more than 30 blue-and-white-flowered wreaths, and readings of the names of children who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Local teenagers contributed to the ceremony by placing two white carnations into a basket at the foot of the bimah.

As Joseph Kahn of the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors addressed the crowd in Yiddish, he emphasized that the yearly memorial service is a chance to "remind the world not to forget, and to ask the same question as we have asked for so many years, 'How could this have happened?' "

In a world where anti-Semitism and Holocaust-denial runs rampant, Kahn stressed that "it is our duty and obligation" to carry on the legacy of those who have perished due to hate and intolerance. The Jewish people, he added, will outlive "all of the foes who are trying to destroy us."

Keynote speaker Mark Talisman, head of the Project Judaica Foundation and a founding vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, presented a sapling grown from a tree planted by children imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, in what was then Czechoslovakia, to the City of Philadelphia.

After the Holocaust, Talisman explained, the tree was replanted on the site of the crematoria as a memorial to the Jews who perished there. At its base, the children who survived placed a sign that read, "As the Branches of This Tree, So the Branches of Our People: Remember the Children," which gave the theme for this year's remembrance program.

In handing over the potted plant, Talisman bid the city "to tend and to take care of" the sapling, and each time it is looked upon, to remember all of the children who died as part of the Holocaust.

The young tree will be cared for by Congregation Mishkan Shalom, and eventually be planted as part of the refurbished Holocaust memorial now in development by the Federation.

"We all have to open our eyes," expressed Talisman, and to pay attention to other horrors that still occur all over the world.

For example, he recalled with frustration that it took an Academy Award-nominated movie — 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," staring actor Don Cheadle — to bring the horrors of what happened in that African nation to the public eye, even though it was 10 years after the genocidal rampages there, which took more than 1 million lives.

"When we say 'never again,' it means never again to anybody," he declared.

As the ceremony came to a close, Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski of B'nai Jacob of Oxford Circle led the Kaddish. An elderly woman, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen extermination camp, lifted her eyeglasses and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, as those in the room stood and recited the mourner's prayer.


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