As students moved with purpose toward the HAFTR High School auditorium last Thursday, the only light emanated from yahrzeit candles held by students who stood outside classrooms. Then at 9:20 am, a siren sounded — as sirens had sounded earlier in Israel.
“This is our first school-wide assembly in two years, and it is a significant milestone to connect once again as a school community to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day,” Yom HaShoah, said HAFTR Principal Naomi Lippman.
Lippman noted that those who mark the day have three major obligations: recognizing the existence of “unfathomable evil” in the world, mourning “the immeasurable loss of six million precious lives,” and celebrating “the faith, resilience and optimism of the men, women and children who resisted and endured.”
In order for students to learn about, understand and continue to remember the Shoah, the school asked them to uncover their families’ stories of the tragedy, which will be compiled in a book HAFTR is calling “Lasting Legacies.”
Juniors Rachel Czeisler, Eva Czegledi and Eliana Perl presented their stories at the assembly. Czeisler had written about her great-grandmother Sara Glickman, a Holocaust survivor who told her great-granddaughter her story.
“Once they ran out of food, so my great-grandmother’s mom left to find more,” Czeisler recounted. “But there was a blizzard, and her mother never made it back home. She froze to death.”
Mugda Wohl, Czegledi’s great-grandmother, endured much suffering. Her father lost his successful grocery store. Her family was shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she came face to face with the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele and learned that family members had been killed.
“My great-grandmother endured immense hardship and witnessed cruel events, yet she is the most loving and peaceful person I ever met,” Czegledi said. “My great-grandmother lived a happy life after the war, and she refused to live her life with any resentment or hatred towards anyone due to what she lived through.”
Perl’s aunt Anna survived one of those incidents whose description sounds like a movie scene. She was sent in a cattle car full of people on March 26, 1942, on the first transport to Auschwitz.
“Anna’s number was 1,002,” Perl said. “Anna believed they survived because they spoke German; they were favored instantly and given better jobs. Anna escaped death many times. For example, everyone had to jump over a ditch. If you fell, you were sent to the gas chambers.”
Anna fell once. Her sister, Serena, pleaded for her life. The guard said, “If she doesn’t die today, she’ll die tomorrow.”
Anna died in 2019.
“Almost 80 years have passed, and the nightmares are still there,” said Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, of Congregation Ash Chodesh in Woodmere.
A 40-panel Holocaust exhibit created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in Manhattan, has made its way to HAFTR, with 27 of the panels on display in the high school.
“As Jews in the world,” HAFTR Executive Director Ari Solomon said, “we have to constantly remember, not forget. It’s part of our history of how we are, where we are and who we are. As more deniers in the world exist, we have to make sure that [survivors’] stories are remembered, and it’s with great pride that we began an initiative this year called the ‘Lasting Legacies’.”
Trying to understand, and then remember, atrocities such the Holocaust, or even the current war in Ukraine, is hard for everyone, Solomon said.
“We have the pictures. We have the videos of it to really comprehend what these people went through,” he said.
His own mother- and father-in-law are Holocaust survivors, and, he added, “We can’t comprehend this.”