A Stately Tribute to the Shoah From Powell


By Masha Leon

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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The highlight of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s week-long 10th anniversary celebration was the April 30 National Days of Remembrance commemoration address by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Held in Washington’s Capitol Rotunda with grand pomp, this remarkable event could not have been imagined by anyone after World War II, especially by the thousands of katzetnikes (concentration camp survivors) and ghetto survivors who reached America’s shores in 1946 — including Benjamin Meed, the event’s chair.

The ceremony included the Presentation of Colors by the 3rd U.S. Infantry — the Old Guard — as well as greetings by Meed, Israel’s Ambassador Daniel Ayalon and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council chairman Fred Zeidman, and Master Sergeant Beverly Benda’s performance of the Yiddish lament “Es Brent” (“Our Town Is Aflame”) accompanied by the U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own).

“I am especially privileged to mark the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 10th anniversary of the founding of the United State Holocaust Museum,” Powell said. “Forever unique in history, the firestorm of hate that was the Holocaust… was a colossal act of arson, unprecedented in its scale with genocide as its sole and evil purpose.… Whatever our faith or family background, we must take the memory of the Holocaust deep into our own minds and hearts and mourn them as if each and everyone of them were our own.… Their memory must not be lost.… We will pass it on to our children. We will pass it on to our children’s children.”

Underscoring the theme of memory, Elie Wiesel remarked: “Generations vanish, others are born, remembrance ceremonies follow one another — and hatred is still alive…. Some of us, the remnant of the remnant, wonder… who will bear witness for the witness?… What remains clear… is… that if we forget them, we too shall be forgotten.”

* * *

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was the keynote speaker at the April 29 Holocaust Memorial “Gedent-Zachor — Remember” observance at New Jersey’s Jewish Community Center of Greater Clifton-Passaic. Klein told the 500-strong New Jersey audience — which included Joseph Bukiet, a survivor and founding chairman of the community’s Holocaust Resource Center, as well as the father of author Melvin Jules Bukiet; Clifton’s Mayor James Anzaldi, and New Jersey state Assemblyman Peter Eagler — that “ignoring Hitler made the Holocaust possible.”

Klein declared: “The world must not repeat that error by ignoring Palestinian-Arab violations of their agreements… sponsoring terror attacks, sheltering terrorists and inciting the Arab masses to hatred and violence, which strengthens terror groups and increases the danger to Israel.”

Asked to speak as a “survivor of Warsaw,” I described the flourishing Jewish life of pre-war Warsaw, my recollections of the early months of the Nazi occupation, my mother’s and my many narrow escapes, finding temporary refuge in Vilna and the refusal of my teachers and fellow students to believe my description of the horrors and plight of the Jews in Warsaw.

I concluded with excerpts from Vladka Meed’s address at the Workmen’s Circle/Forward Association’s Warsaw Ghetto Commemoration, held April 20 at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In an emotional recitative in Yiddish, Meed, a courier for the Jewish Fighting Organization who smuggled weapons across the wall in preparation for the ghetto uprising, had recalled: “In the worst of times, [even] during typhus, Jews believed in life, in survival.… Schools were organized.… Small children with swollen bellies were taught to read and write, to create poems.… Jews wanted to remain human.”

“In my home,” Meed had said, “my mother would hide a slice of bread to pay for [the] melamed who trained my brother for his bar mitzvah, which he did not live to celebrate.… No German photos [ever] showed the Jews’ stubbornness to survive…. The fighting youth organizations — 22 of them mostly teenagers — who, when only 60,000 Jews out of 500,000 were left in the ghetto, put up placards that read: ‘Jews, don’t believe their lies! Rise up!’”

Concluded Meed: “Our final word was ‘nekome,’ revenge. Our revenge is survival!”

* * *

Fanya Gottesman Heller hosted the May 6 reception in honor of the publication of “Resilience and Courage: Men, Women and the Holocaust” by Nechama Tec (Yale University). In the course of interviewing survivors for several of her prior books dealing with the Holocaust, Tec, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and, like Heller, also a survivor, grasped that “gender — even class” played a part in adaptation as well as survival.

This groundbreaking book addresses the differences in coping mechanisms by men and women in ghettos, concentration camps, in hiding and in the forests with partisans — as sex objects, mistresses, domestic workers and fellow fighters.

“Men abdicated power when their role as caretaker or head of the family was lost,” Tec noted. “Women, on the other hand, had varied special experiences that enabled them to cope.” A remarkable study, a fascinating read.

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