ALEXANDRIA, VA – Tuesday, April 18, 2023. The day dawned bright and blue, the sky a perfect cobalt hue. One wonders. How can the heavens smile so broadly on a day like today, a day that marks what the Alexandria mayor called “the singular most egregious example of human depravity” in the history of humankind? Is that not a celestial indignity? But just as the city ceremony was about to begin, a sharp wind kicked up, ruffled the speakers’ hair, and fluttered their speech papers. It was as if the earth answered. STOP. LISTEN. REMEMBER.
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel, Night
A hush fell over the audience as musicians Randy Stein and Dr. Michael Linver from the Agudas Achim Congregation band began playing the theme from Schindler’s List.
“Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we repeat the words Never Again,” Rabbi Steven Rein of Agudas Achim Congregation told the attendees.
“On this day of memory, a day when we recall the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, we also stand on the cobblestones of our nation’s forefathers. This nation was not built on toleration but rather on acceptance.”
Yom HaShoah is Hebrew for Day of the Holocaust. A day that commemorates the greatest genocide to befall the Jewish people. A state sponsored Final Solution that murdered two thirds of European Jewry, those unfathomable years still in living memory. The US Congress established Days of Remembrance as the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust.
In 1988, Holocaust survivor and Alexandria resident Charlene Schiff convinced Mayor James Moran to create an annual Days of Remembrance ceremony. Our city became the first jurisdiction in the Greater Washington area to conduct a formal observance of the Holocaust. This was the 34th year that Alexandria has held this event on the Market Square stage.
Mayor Justin Wilson concluded his address with a remembrance of the legendary Benjamin Ferencz, the prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in September 1947. Ben Ferencz died April 7 at the age of 103.
“But today, I want to choose hope. A few days ago, our world lost a warrior for justice, a man who uncovered and documented the evidence of the atrocities of the Holocaust and then worked to hold those responsible, accountable.”
Yom HaShoah comes at a time when antisemitism and Holocaust denial are rising dramatically. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitic incidents in the United States, released a new report in March which reveals hate crimes against Jews increased 36% in 2022, the highest level recorded since 1979.
“As a Christian, and specifically an African American Christian, I know firsthand that Christians have not always been kind to the Jewish people,” stated Reverend Quardricos Bernard Driskell, Senior Pastor at Beulah Baptist Church. “In fact, we conveniently forget that Jesus was Jewish.”
The Reverend continued, “At the core of the Christian faith is a commitment to ensure that the genocide that occurred to six million Jewish people never happens again.”
Yom HaShoah commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during Passover on April 19, 1943. It was the largest uprising by Jews during World War II and the first significant urban revolt against the Nazis. This year marks the 80th anniversary of that heroic 20 day battle.
Rabbi David Spinrad of Beth El Hebrew Congregation drew a comparison between Yom HaShoah and International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
“I have extraordinarily great difficulty accepting International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations. That and today’s Yom HaShoah commemorate two very different things. International Holocaust Day marks the date of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz. It commemorates Jews being liberated by others. It is a day in which Jews are honored, in the words of Dara Horn, for being passive victims with no agency and therefore little dignity.”
Rabbi Spinrad went on, “today, Yom HaShoah, we don’t remember being liberated by others. Today we remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We remember because soon there will be no more living survivors of the Holocaust to remind us.”
As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it now falls on their children to carry the torch. Keynote speaker Robbie Schaefer, an Alexandria musician, song composer and theater artist, was next. As Robbie strummed his guitar, he began, “here I am. In 1942, my father, five or six years old, was on a train platform along with his sister and his parents and most of the Jewish community of Czernowitz. The trains were headed for death camps. And here I am.
While they were on the platform, a woman walked up to them. And she snuck them out of line and stuffed them into a cart and covered it with tarp. She took them back to her house and hid them in her attic. They stayed there jammed together like sardines.”
Robbie’s father survived. Robbie thanked the woman who saved his family. He does not know her name.