The weather seemed fitting this past Sunday, as members of Philadelphia's Jewish community gathered to mark yet another anniversary of the Shoah.
With the wind howling overhead, drenched participants flooded through the doors of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, which hosted the somber, two-hour-long ceremony 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.
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, this year's program centered on the theme of "The Urgency of Holocaust Remembrance in the Madness of Our Age." The keynote speaker was scholar Michael Berenbaum.
After some brief remarks by David Gutin, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the program began with a colorguard procession by members of the Jewish War Veterans' Fegelson-Young-Feinberg Post No. 697. The commemoration continued with a candlelighting ceremony, the presentation and laying of wreaths, and readings of some of the names of children who perished.
Addressing the crowd in Yiddish, Manya Frydman Perel of the survivors association emphasized the importance of Israel.
"If we would have had a country of our own, the Holocaust would never have happened," she stated.
Israel Consul General Uriel Palti put it another way: He said that the nation today acts as "a symbol of the victory of the Jewish people over Nazi Germany."
"Am Yisrael Chai: The Jewish people is alive!" he shouted.
During his speech, Berenbaum — the former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., who now serves as an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, as well as the executive editor of the new Encyclopaedia Judaica — examined some of the other ways the Holocaust legacy continues.
For one, he cited the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial within Islamic countries, namely Iran.
This phenomenon is surprising, according to Berenbaum, since such beliefs were thought to be rooted primarily in Western European countries, like Germany and Poland. In fact, Jews who lived in Iran during World War II enjoyed relative protection as death and destruction raged through Europe.
"The country even served as a way station to receive Jewish children" from Europe, said Berenbaum. "But who today should deny the Holocaust? The president of Iran."
The speaker said that this new brand of anti-Semitism is also an expression of "madness," since it seeks to delegitimize Israel by turning the tables on the Jewish people and painting them as Nazis.
In the eyes of these new bigots, he explained, "the power of Israel is also its weakness."
Another surprising outgrowth of the Holocaust?
That other murderous atrocities linger on, said Berenbaum. Although declared illegal by the United Nations in 1948, genocide has reared its ugly head in places like Rwanda, Cambodia and Sudan.
The speaker cited a naivete in the idea that "if only they knew, they would do something."
"In reality, it doesn't change our policy," he noted.
Still, he summed up, it's critical to remember the atrocities of Europe. "We're the last to live in the presence of survivors. We're at a strange and difficult turning point in history."