BOSTON — After two consecutive years of virtual Yom HaShoah commemorations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, wondered if this would be the year the event returned to in-person.
“I think the survivors and others within the community, the generation after, felt that this year it needed to continue to be virtual,” Burton said.
This year’s event, “At a Crossroads: Preserving the Truth,” on May 1, will feature Holocaust survivor Frieda Grayzel as the keynote speaker.
“She’s a wonderful, amazing woman,” Burton said. “She will tell her story as a survivor … It goes to the heart of bearing witness, transmitting memories of the Holocaust. It’s the heart and soul of the program.”
He noted that during this portion of the program, Grayzel will respond to questions from teenagers, not necessarily Jewish, who are participants in the JCRC’s essay contest, which is named after the late Holocaust survivor Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter.
Prior to this year’s event, there will be another, in-person event downtown, organized by the Israeli-American Council.
“It’s the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that there will be an in-person gathering at the [Holocaust] memorial,” Burton said.
However, he added, “It’s important that the [main] ceremony itself is accessible to the participants, to the survivors – they’re not young.”
Citing Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Burton said that approximately 3,000 Holocaust survivors live in Massachusetts.
“We will continue to center [the event on] survivors … as long as we possibly can,” he said.
At the online commemoration, speakers will also include the Reverend Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South Church; and Boston College professor Charles Gallagher, a Jesuit priest who is the author of “Nazis of Copley Square,” a nonfiction account of Nazi spies and saboteurs in New York and Boston in the lead-up to the U.S. entry into World War II.
Mayor Michelle Wu will represent the city of Boston, while two diplomats will attend: Meron Reuben, the consul general of Israel to New England; and Nicole Menzenbach, the consul general of Germany to New England. This will be Wu’s first Yom HaShoah event as mayor.
Burton recalled working with former mayors in past commemorations over his 11 years leading JCRC, including Kim Janey last year, as well as current Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and the late Thomas Menino.
In years when the event is held in person, it takes place “at the heart of the civic center, along the Freedom Trail,” Burton noted. “The mayor of Boston sees it through his or her office window.”
“The notion of this particular event situated in a larger civic space is central to the story,” he said. “Yom HaShoah is generally downtown.”
He added, “It’s also why we do the essay contest … Yes, there are obviously Jewish kids who participate. But most of the awardees each year are from participating schools that are public, nonsectarian schools. Most of the kids, winners across the Commonwealth, are people of a broader engagement with Holocaust education. A central part of this particular [event] is the transmission of memory. It’s not for the Jewish community alone.”
This year, the commemoration includes Gallagher, who wrote what Burton called a “very specific piece on the Catholic Church’s own reckoning, own legacy in Boston during the war.”
Gallagher participated in a separate event on April 26, as part of the JCRC Speaker Series.
His book is “part of the story of the JCRC,” said Burton, who interviewed the author at the April 26 event. “The Jewish community in Boston was dealing with the problem of antisemitism and Nazis in Boston and not getting the recognition in 1939, 1940, 1941 from civic leaders that it might be assumed it ought to have had. Father [Charles] Coughlin was on the radio. The Jewish community at the time did not have the relationship with high government officials, the media, the Catholic Church, to deal with antisemitism in our streets.”
Burton said that in 1944, shortly after the events described in the book, Jewish organizations concerned about Nazi infiltration within Boston came together to form the Jewish Community Council – the forerunner of the JCRC.
“[Gallagher] used our archives, among other resources, in telling his story,” Burton said. “It’s, frankly, a central part of our story.”