PEABODY – Over 300 guests, including Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, interfaith clergy from across the North Shore, and 14 young people who have committed to learning and sharing the messages of the Holocaust gathered at Temple Ner Tamid on Jan. 27 to commemorate International Holocaust Day.
On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, speakers remembered the horrors of the Holocaust and emphasized the importance of combatting an increasing tide of anti-Semitism at home and abroad.
“75 years ago is not that long,” said Lappin Foundation Executive Director Debbie Coltin, who worked with Bettencourt to organize the event. “Are we going to look back in 20 years, and ask why didn’t we pay attention? Any time we see an injustice, we should speak up.”
While Jan. 27 marks International Holocaust Day, Coltin is on a mission to make the month of January Holocaust Education Month. So far, she has achieved success in Peabody. At the event, Bettencourt handed a signed proclamation that January is Holocaust Education Month in Peabody to a local Holocaust survivor, Rita Kaplan.
“On this anniversary, we recommit ourselves to combatting the global rise in anti-Semitism; and a recent act of hate in Peabody serves as a painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust,” the proclamation reads.
The mayor was referring to vandals who used a BB gun to shatter a window at Chabad of Peabody in November 2018. Later, in May of 2019, the Chabad’s rabbi, Nechemia Schusterman, and Rabbi Sruli Baron of Tobin Bridge Chabad were insulted with anti-Semitic slurs as they walked a main street in the city.
Kaplan, a 95-year-old Peabody resident who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 through the Kindertransport program that brought her to England before the war, was moved by Peabody’s Holocaust Day event and humbled to personally receive the mayor’s proclamation.
“The ceremony was beautiful – the children and their readings were very meaningful,” she said.
Kaplan was joined by Amely Smith, another Kindertransport rescue, and a video of the late Sonia Weitz, who lived through five Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, was shown discussing the atrocities she endured and reading her famous poetry.
The “children” to whom Kaplan referred are 14 Holocaust Legacy Fellows, local high school students who visited important Eastern European sites over the summer. Some fellows read passages from the Holocaust Scroll, a collection of essays and prayers from first-person testimonies that is read on the Holocaust. Others, like Masconomet Regional High School senior Alan Chak of Middleton, read about their experiences at Auschwitz this past summer.
“Before I walked through Auschwitz, I never understood what it means to truly feel anger,” he wrote. “What I saw in one of the rooms there changed me for the rest of my life. The room had one item in it, shoes; and thousands of them in a pile … every one of these shoes belonged to someone that was murdered. Some were so small that nobody under the age of four could fit into them.”
Holocaust Legacy Fellows commit to educating their communities about what they witnessed and working to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry. The Fellows brought their projects to the ceremony, which included newspaper articles, interviews, photo exhibitions, and posters.
“The lessons we can teach the next generation from the Holocaust are among the most powerful and meaningful,” said Jody Kipnis, who founded the Holocaust Legacy Fellows with Todd Ruderman. “It was our hope they would understand the meaning of ‘Never again,’ and no longer hear these words as a call to prayer, but a call to action … in a world where hatred of others is becoming increasingly commonplace, we can choose to stand as one against those who peddle it.”