Author Chaim Potok delivered the keynote address at the ceremony.
Many members of the Los Angeles Jewish community along with numerous dignitaries, including Gov. Pete Wilson, gathered last Sunday to commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, during ceremonies at Sinai Temple and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Resistance was the theme of both events, at which two rescuers of thousands of Jews were honored, and author Chaim Potok gave a keynote address.
For Fred Diament, a Holocaust survivor and co-chair of the Sinai Temple affair, the image of Jews going to the slaughter like sheep is both offensive and untrue, a remnant of Nazi propaganda widely accepted but never questioned.
“It’s an outrage. It’s an obscene lie,” he said. “It robs us of our dignity.”
Diament, who spent the war as a partisan fighter and concentration camp inmate recounted his experiences and spoke of the courage demonstrated by Jews at the hands of Nazi persecution.
“Jewish people in the ghettos resisted far more effectively than all the other nations combined,” he told an estimated 2,000 people at Sinai Temple, relating stories of teen-agers in the Warsaw Ghetto, armed only with pistols and Molotov cocktails, who battled Nazi tanks for six weeks.
Diament also paid tribute to four teen-age girls who smuggled dynamite into Auschwitz, where he also spent 2 1/2 years as a prisoner. It was during this period when he, along with 12,000 other inmates, witnessed the execution by hanging of his brother, Leo.
There were also many righteous men and women who resisted spiritually, he added.
“The vast majority of survivors saved at least one or more fellow prisoners,” Diament said. “This is the greatest mitzvah in Judaism — to save another life. It was the biggest fear of people in the camps that, God forbid, no one would survive.
“It is our legacy to tell our story.”
Potok addressed resistance through spiritual strength and the powers of art. Previously ignored drawings in latrines and murals in the children’s barracks at Auschwitz, discovered by a Polish-American photographer who recorded the many examples of “resistance art,” were noted by the author and rabbi.
“This is not art created out of frivolity. It literally kept their spirits alive,” he said. “The words ‘I am’ are written on a wall, the epitaph of someone about to die. Whoever wrote those words, we see them now. Those words are the ‘you’ we will remember.”
Recounting the stories of ghetto children creating images of flowers, butterflies, rainbows and family portraits (which are preserved in museums and books), Potok said: “These pictures are the sacred graffiti of the soul. The children are dead, but they resisted through this art.”
Potok also discussed other forms of resistance, including that of an old Jewish man seen praying and laughing in Auschwitz. When someone asked him what there was to be happy about, the man replied, saying, “Everyday, I thank God, He didn’t make me one of them,” referring to his captors.
“When we mourn the incalculable losses of our past, we need to consider the infinite possibility of our future,” Potok said. “That we are here for the future is the ultimate resistance.”
Gov. Wilson talked about the importance of museums to preserving the Holocaust’s lessons for future generations.
“We are the last generation to live in the presence of survivors. In 20 or 30 years, there will be no single living witness to what happened,” he said.
Wilson spoke about visiting Yad Vashem during his first of four trips to Israel. “The sheer magnitude of the systematic ruthlessness and sustained inhumanity almost overwhelms our ability to comprehend the Shoah,” he said. But upon leaving the museum and seeing all of Israel “is to know the eternity of the Jewish people.”
Israeli Consul General Yoram Ben Ze’ev echoed these sentiments, recalling David Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Yom HaShoah be observed halfway between Passover and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day.
Israel’s roots are in the Exodus story, observed during Passover, he said. “It reflects how close we were to total extinction. Like this, the modern state of Israel emerged from ashes. It was a revival, a new beginning.”
Israelis have learned powerful lessons from the Holocaust, Ben Ze’ev added. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the cruelty of perpetrators and the indifference of the rest of the world,” he said. (Israel regularly volunteers aid to war refugees in nations such as Zaire.) “It is important if we want [the Holocaust] to be the last tragic event in the history of the human race.”
Earlier in the day, Wilson and Ben Ze’ev participated in ceremonies held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. For the first time, this annual event was broadcast live to more than 100 million people via the center’s World Wide Web site, according to associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper.
During the ceremonies, Knud Dyby and Ruth Gruber, two saviors of many Jews, were honored for their heroism.
“I simply had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I don’t consider myself a hero,” Dyby said, modestly. During World War II, the Danish police officer successfully ferried 1,888 Jews to safety in neutral Sweden.
As a State Department official, Gruber was sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue 1,000 Jewish refugees and to escort them to the United States. Later, as a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune, she chronicled the struggles of Jews on the infamous ship Exodus, which was unable to enter Palestine.
“I only helped a little. I don’t deserve honors,” she said. “I stand on the shoulders of survivors, who vowed to survive to be witnesses.
“These 1,000 Jews were the only ones we rescued outside of quotas. But the U.S. took in 425,000 German prisoners of war. We could have taken in 100,000 or 500,000 Jews.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, compared Dyby and Gruber to Noah and his biblical ark.
“When the world faces disaster, those few who built an ark to save the world are the righteous people of that generation.”
Wilson also saluted their bravery. “Too few citizens showed your courage and resolve. If they did, history would be different,” he said. “We must never forget the shocking crimes committed, or the valors and dignity and heroism of the survivors.”
From left in back: Mrs. Gayle Wilson with husband California Governor Pete Wilson watch as journalist Ruth Gruber (in front) and Knud Dyby light the torch at the Wiesenthal Center Yom Hashoah Commemoration.