To a sad cadence, Holocaust survivors marched into the auditorium with Monroe High School students before a hushed audience of almost 800 for the annual Yom Hashoa program of the annual Henry Ricklis Holocaust Memorial Committee.
During the April 18 program, they saw a film about local survivors, sang the Partisan’s Song, heard a survivor read a poem about her experiences in the concentration camps, and lit hundreds of memorial candles.
Uplifting moments occurred, as when the youthful members of the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple junior choir, led by Cantor Anna West Ott, performed for the gathering. Two Monroe High students, Judy Joseph and Litita Satpathy, read their winning essays about the Shoa. And the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of survivors came on stage to light candelabra in their honor.
“This is such an important event for this community,” said committee chair Jay Ellis Brown. “I’ve always been afraid this would die and fade from people’s memories as we lost our survivors. But now as I see the second- and third-generation family members and see and hear these students, I feel happy it will not be forgotten.”
The program was cosponsored by the Jewish Congregation of Clearbrook, the Jewish Congregation of Concordia, Greenbriar at Whittingham, Clearbrook and Concordia adult communities, Congregation Etz Chaim Monroe Township Jewish Center, Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, and Second Generation Holocaust Survivors.
Also in attendance were Rep. Rush Holt (D-Dist 12) and other dignitaries, including the entire Monroe Township Council and representatives of the school administration and board of education.
Mayor Richard Pucci said over his 20 years as mayor he had been touched by the many remembrances and the survivors he had met and had come to think of his Jewish constituents as “my Jewish family.”
“For a person like myself, who is Roman Catholic and Italian and who grew up with wonderful parents who taught me love — I didn’t even know what prejudice was….” said Pucci. “I had many Jewish friends and have tremendous support from my Jewish family. Each year I come and it never gets stale. For me, I will never forget and I will see to it my grandchildren know the story.”
Featured speaker Marcia Ikonomopoulos, director of the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the only Greek Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere — spoke of the slaughter of the Romaniote Jews of Janina.
Unlike the majority of Greece’s Jews, who were Sephardi, the Jews of Janina were descendants of Roman slaves who had already been in Greece centuries when Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition, arrived.
“Greece had the largest continuous presence of Jews in the Diaspora,” said Ikonomopoulos. However, 87 percent lost their lives in the Holocaust; only 3 percent of Janina’s Jews survived the war.
Ikonomopoulos said she frequently travels to Greece, going to synagogues “where Jews pray so they will have other Jews to pray with.”
“I go to keep the memory alive,” she added. “I go to let them know we know they are there. This is the fifth time I’ve spoken about this this week and I’m drained. But this is so important to tell their story and remember.”