At such a time, the only thing for me to do was to show up.
Monday night, the place was the Jewish temple next door to our Unitarian meeting house.
The occasion was a memorial service in honor of those six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
This year we heard a special guest. He was himself a survivor, Peter Braunfeld, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago.
This fragile, balding gentleman in his 80s sat throughout his conversational talk. He only occasionally referred to notes on his laptop. I failed to find out who those people with him were. A son? A granddaughter? But after he had spoken more than half an hour, they signaled from the front row to him that he needed to wrap his talk up.
I could have listened another half hour. Or an hour. I was just
honored to be in his presence.
This annual memorial service at Achduth Vesholom is really a community event, as it should be. Various clergy, including our Unitarian minister, The Rev. Misty-Dawn Shelly, shared readings. Our host, Rabbi Cattapan sang a solo, a sad melody that was almost a dirge.
Mayor Henry read a proclamation on behalf of the city.
Earlier, a cello prelude set the tone for the service. This was yet another mournful piece. It took me back to my own tour of Auschwitz more than 20 years ago. As images of that day appeared I felt my tears welling up.
As always, telling stories makes for the most memorable sermons and speeches. Indeed, Professor Braunfeld’s talk opened the pages of history for us. Here he was, merely seven living with his family in Vienna, when the Nazis annexed Austria. As German soldiers goose-stepped down broad avenues, welcoming citizens cheered wildly.
Nazis ordered Braunfeld’s father not to practice law any longer. The invading troops also declared that Jewish children were forbidden to play in the nearby public park. For this Jewish family, they could bear the restrictions no longer.
But moving to Prague provided no sanctuary for the family either. Storm troopers would shortly occupy that country.
A brief stay in London only meant the family would be dodging German bombs in subway shelters during the blitz.
Finally, they gained passage on a ship headed for safety in the United States. For Braunfeld’s and scores of other Jewish families safety became a reality as their ship glided into New York Harbor and the welcoming vision of the Statue of Liberty.
One thing that made Braunfeld’s visit this week to our city especially important was his talk to a group of students at Wayne High School. Which is the message yet today. Every generation must be told the story of the Holocaust.
That story did not begin with the death camps or the yellow Star of David sewn onto a child’s winter coat. It began at the dinner table as the sun faded and fathers and mothers spoke the language of prejudice in the presence of their sons and daughters.
After the service, as I visited with Braunfeld in the temple’s reception hall, I was reminded of Coleridge’s ancient mariner doomed to spend his life telling his story of the ship that could only drift in the still sea, not a drop of rain. Holocaust survivors such as Braunfeld must sometimes feel such a burden.
Within a few years, all the Holocaust survivors will be gone. So it falls upon their children, grandchildren and the rest of us to tell their story. We must never forget.
I’ll be back at the temple for the memorial service next year.