Valley to mark 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation

YOUNGSTOWN — Each year, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation holds an annual Holocaust writing, art and media contest. This year’s theme will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Bonnie Burdman, director of community relations / government affairs for the federation, said while events already are being held worldwide for the 75th anniversary, the Youngstown area will mark it during Holocaust Remembrance Week in April.

“This is a very important anniversary to remind everyone of the hatred that existed and how people were able to triumph over that hatred,” she said.

Burdman said because it has been 75 years, many of the Holocaust survivors or liberators are deceased or very elderly.

“We are losing an entire generation who lived through the Holocaust. We need to keep those stories for future generations. It is important to communicate what was done in the past to try and get rid of an entire group of people so that it does not happen again,” she said.

Burdman said anti-Semitism has risen in many parts of the world, including in the United States. In October 2018, 11 people were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a man who shouted anti-Semitic slurs. The suspect, Robert Bowers, 47, is expected to go on trial later this year on 63 counts, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

In 1945, as American, British and Soviet soldiers moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany, they encountered and liberated concentration camp prisoners. Advancing from the east, Soviet forces came upon Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland on Jan. 27, 1945, where they witnessed unimaginable horrors. In liberating Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, the allies exposed to the world the full breadth of Nazi atrocities, lending urgency to the demands for justice.

Burdman said the essays and mass media and art contest for Holocaust Remembrance will focus on the theme “Why We Must Remember: Honoring the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.”

Burdman said to help keep the stories alive today, special panels telling the stories of Henry Kinast and Bill Vegh, two Holocaust survivors who since have died, are brought to schools, libraries and other locations.

Event organizers said the planned remembrance events help remind society of what can happen to civilized people when bigotry, hatred and indifference reign.

Rabbi Joseph Schonberger of Temple El Emeth in Liberty is the son of Holocaust survivors of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

“There are relatives in both my parents’ families who experienced the Holocaust, but did not survive. My father only had one relative who survived,” he said.

Schonberger said many of the survivors and liberators no longer are living, so it was important to learn and document their stories.

“Just as every American family has some connection in some way to World War II, there are Jewish families who have a connection in some way to the people in their families who experienced the Holocaust,” he said.

Jesse McClain, a Holocaust educational specialist for the local federation, provides talks, displays and classes in area classrooms and services groups or institutions pertaining to the Holocaust. He also partners on projects, speakers and activities with Youngstown State University to bring relevant and timely speakers and presentations to the community.

Burdman said what McClain does is help educate and raise awareness of what happened during the Holocaust.

Schonberger said while some children survived the Holocaust who are now in their 80s and 90s, many children and elderly were among the first killed by Nazis because they could not do any work.

He said some survivors do not want to speak of what they went through because of the emotional and physical trauma they experienced.

“We are losing the survivors left and right. We don’t have many survivors in our local community. Those survivors may not be able to talk or may not want to talk,” Burdman said.

Schonberger said time has not lessened the need to remember and educate future generations about how hatred and racism can lead to disastrous effects.

Over a week span, world leaders will gather twice to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation by Soviet forces of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of Nazi Germany’s death camps.

On Thursday, world leaders arrived in Jerusalem for the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the genocide and combating modern-day anti-Semitism. Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Prince Charles were among the more than 40 royals and heads of state attending.

A second ceremony will be Monday at the site of the camp in Poland where 6 million Jews were killed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.