Yom HaShoah Teaches Lessons of Survival, Gratitude, Hope, Inclusiveness

They were taken away from their homes, kept behind metal bars and wire fences like criminals—animals. Millions were murdered. Millions more were displaced, left without a home, without family, without much hope. But they survived.

On Yom HaShoah, and every other day of the year, we: remember those who lost their lives in the Holocaust—condemned simply because of their religion; continue to learn from those who survived; and honor those who risked their lives, livelihoods, and families to aid the Jewish people. They show us the resilience of the human spirit; that inclusiveness and diversity are a strength and necessary priority; that there is always still hope for humanity; that in the end, we are all the same.

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With these themes of survival, gratitude, hope, and inclusiveness, Cypress College held its second Yom HaShoah Day of Remembrance event on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, a follow-up to the hugely successful inaugural event just a year prior.

Nearly 1,300 people lined the Cypress College Pond for the event featuring: remarks from Holocaust survivors Gerda Seifer and keynote speaker Zenon Neumark; music and dance performances by Cypress College students and faculty; photographs taken by Cypress College Photography Professor Clifford Lester; and a memorial candle lighting.

Also speaking at the event were Cypress College History Professor David Halahmy, Dr. Holli Levitsky of Loyola Marymount University, and Cypress College President Dr. Bob Simpson. Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom led a Kaddish prayer.

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Holocaust survivors Seifer and Neumark were joined by three other survivors, Harry Lester, Sarah B. Schweitz, and Piri Katz, and second-generation survivor and Cypress College staff member Rick van Beynan, for a meet and greet with local middle school students prior to the ceremony and the lighting of memorial candles.

Neumark, the keynote speaker, focused his remarks on the “thousands of incredibly brave and decent people, men and women of all nationalities, who in the hour of need, and in spite of the risks, extended a helping hand and thus saved many from certain death.”

“I am here because of them,” he said, calling them the “real heroes of the Second World War.”

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Neumark was a teenager when the war broke out. He escaped from a Nazi labor camp and was given food and lodging for several days by an ethnic German family living in Poland.

“They never asked me how long I’m going to stay,” he said. “They never asked me for any remuneration. They were absolutely angelic by doing it. I can assure you, I cannot put into words the enormity of the deed that they had done.”

Neumark later lived in Warsaw, where he was involved in several underground Polish and Jewish movements, then Vienna, where he worked as an electrician, under a false Catholic Pole identity. He attended the University of Oklahoma and earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, then received his master’s degree in physics from UCLA. He worked for the Hughes Aircraft Company for 35 years.

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Gerda Seifer, who is just one of two survivors from her family of 40, also survived under a false identity as a Catholic Pole. Her mother died in a gas chamber at Bełżec, a concentration camp in southeastern Nazi-occupied Poland, and her father died under unknown circumstances.

An orphan, Seifer went to England following the War, learned English, and became a registered nurse in 1950. She moved to the U.S. a year later, met her husband, and settled in Long Beach, California.

At the Yom HaShoah event, Seifer implored the crowd to learn from history and keep the stories alive.

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“It is 72 years since the end of World War II, yet there is still so much violence, so much killing and prejudice in the world,” she said. “Why is it so hard for human beings to learn from history and not commit the same mistakes over and over again? It seems so simple, just to treat others as you would want to be treated.”

She continued, “I’m speaking as a survivor at a time when there are fewer and fewer survivors still alive. In 10 or 15 years, there will be no living witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, so I’m depending on you to keep alive the memory of this horrible tragedy in hopes that this history won’t repeat itself. It is a great responsibility, and there’s a reason I speak to so many people as I do.”

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Following Seifer and Neumark’s remarks, the crowd watched a slideshow of mesmerizing photos of Holocaust survivors taken by Clifford Lester, the Cypress College photography professor. The slideshow was accompanied by a musical composition written by Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Michel Klein, and performed by Klein and Cypress College music faculty.

“Today, as a second-generation survivor, I take portraits of Holocaust survivors. I have been doing so since my mom’s passing,” Lester said. “It is my way to carry on her efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”

Both of Lester’s parents are Holocaust survivors. His mother’s brother—his uncle—was murdered at Auschwitz.

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Lester, whose photos are now featured in a permanent Holocaust Survivor Photo Gallery at Cypress College, will be on sabbatical in the fall to pursue a project to photograph even more Holocaust survivors “and assemble their portraits and their biographies into an undying document.”

“It is my hope that through education and learning the powerful lessons of the past, that we will work diligently to honor one another with kindness, with respect, and that we will all make every effort to bring merit to the message of the survivor and bring forth light from the darkness,” he said.

“As we hear the stories of the survivors, we become witnesses of the past and we become the light that lives on. It is up to us now to continue to bring light into the world.”

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Cypress College President Dr. Bob Simpson added, “The example of the remarkable lives of the honored speakers with us today, the survivors who have graced us with their presence and their words, are living examples of the power of the individual to prevail in the face of all odds. Let us use their lives as inspiration for what we, too, may be able to accomplish in our time.”