ROCKVILLE – Liese Fischer of Silver Spring stared directly at the young people listening to her recall her life during the Holocaust and said, “Ask questions now. The time will come when you want to ask a question, and there will be nobody to ask.”
Fischer was one of 20 Holocaust survivors gathered at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville May 5 for Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) sponsored the event.
Ten of her close family members died, including her parents, Fischer said.
She was 14-years-old when her parents sent her and her brother to a boarding house and then on to England as part of the Kindertransport rescue effort, which enabled her to escape Germany and probable death.
“We were hoping to go to Rhodesia, but Rhodesia didn’t want children,” she said.
While it still pains Fischer to talk of her life, she said she does it “in memory of my parents.”
As a young child, she was happy and attended theater.
“All of a sudden, we couldn’t go swimming anymore,” she recalled. “Everything stopped, just like that.”
Also telling his story was Emmanuel Mandel, who was eight-years-old when his homeland of Hungary was invaded by the Nazis in 1944.
He spent six months in Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp, before being whisked to safety in Switzerland thanks to the Dr. Israel Kastner’s Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest.
“My very early life memories are of the war, not the Holocaust,” Mandel said. “We heard the sirens and rushed from the fifth-floor apartment to the basement.”
He urged members of the audience to pay attention to the increased incidents of hate crimes throughout the world. “Lack of knowledge is unacceptable,” he said.
JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber noted that anti-Semitic acts rose 67 percent nationwide.
“Approximately every two weeks,” a call comes into the JCRC’s Rockville office concerning an anti-Semitic incident in an area school. The incidents mostly involve graffiti, inappropriate texting or bullying, he noted.
It’s important for everyone to condemn all acts of bigotry, he said.
His message to those who commit such acts is simple and direct. He explained, “To all of you out there who wish us harm, we will not cower.”
Adam Zimmerman, whose grandparents suffered greatly during the Holocaust, spoke of his love for them.
His grandparents lost most of their extended family. his grandmother Frieda Berkowitz endured forced labor in Bergen-Belsen. His grandfather Morris Zimmerman worked in a munition factory supporting the Nazi war effort before being forced to march to Buchenwald concentration camp.
Adam Zimmerman knows their stories and believes it is his responsibility to bear witness.
And now he said, “We turn to the fourth generation, our children, and we give to you the same unlimited love they gave to us.”
Keep telling their stories and keep asking how this ever could have happened, Zimmerman urged. “No one walks this journey alone, not on our watch.”
During the afternoon remembrance, survivors lit candles in memory of their relatives killed in the Holocaust.
In a nearby room, displays created by students at the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital showed what they learned about the Holocaust.
Also, survivors and their families individually walked to the microphone to list the names of their deceased loved ones. Many fought back tears as they said the names of their loved ones who they never met.
County Executive Marc Elrich and United States Rep. David Trone (D-6) also read names of some of the six million Jews killed.
Another Yom Hashoah V’Hagvurah (Holocaust and Courage Memorial Day) was commemorated by Young Israel Shomrai Emunah and Kemp Mill Synagogue, along with several co-sponsors, in Kemp Mill on May 5.
The featured speaker was survivor Edith Mayer-Cord, who spent her childhood years running from place to place in Europe to escape the Nazis. Both her father and brother died in Auschwitz.
Now a Columbia, Maryland resident, Mayer-Cord is a frequent speaker in schools, universities, churches, civic groups, and government and military audiences, where she shares her experiences and the lessons learned the hard way: “how to rise above difficult circumstances, transcend hatred, find meaning and protect freedom.”
Another component of the commemoration was the lighting of six candles, one for each million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, by survivors and family members.
Debbie Cohen Katz, coordinator of the yearly observance, lit a candle with her father, a survivor, and other family members. “I had a different kind of childhood,” she said in an interview. “Both my parents were survivors, and I grew up with very little extended family.”
Still, she was not taught to hate those who tried to destroy the Jewish people, Cohen Katz said. “My mother told me that would be giving Hitler another victory.”
While not in attendance, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) issued a statement in observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“On this day, communities of all creeds and nationalities come together to commemorate one of the darkest times in human history. We honor the six million Jews who perished and those who survived the Holocaust. We remember those who risked their lives to resist the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and we renew our commitment to ‘never again’ permit fear and prejudice to develop unchecked into horrific acts.”
It is imperative for all to “condemn the ignorance, hate, xenophobia, and racist conspiracy theories which are ascendant in our society today,” he noted before urging everyone “to speak up for one another, regardless of whether our neighbor looks, worships or lives like us. We need to love thy neighbor – and respect their differences. In this way, we honor and do justice to the memory of the victims and survivors who we remember on Yom Hashoah.”
Senator Chris Van Hollen issued the following statement: “On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, we reflect on the evil that resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews and pledge to fight anti-Semitism and bigotry. The promise to ‘Never Forget’ must be a call to action to ensure that our common humanity triumphs over the poison of hate.”
Writer Barbara Trainin Blank contributed to this report.