This year’s observance themed “Hope, Courage, Resistance, Heroism and Defiance,” recognized the Bielski family. Serving a the event’s keynote speaker, Robert Bielski shared his family history as the son of Tuvia Bielski, who formed and led with his three brothers an Otriad or partisan movement of Jewish refugees.
Mayor Booker said in his remarks, “We are honored to have Robert Bielski as our keynote speaker. The Bielski family teaches us that ordinary people can stand up to forces of tyranny and genocide. Their courage is a role model for our renewed commitment to oppose genocide. Today we stand in humble reverence of the Bielski family and the men and women of the Jewish partisan movement who define the word, ‘defiance.’
During World War II, the Bielski partisan group was one of the most significant Jewish resistance efforts against Nazi Germany. Operating in Western Belorussia (Belarus) between 1942 and 1944, the Bielski partisan movement initially consisted of their immediate surviving relatives and close friends but grew to approximately 1,200 Jews, making it the most successful rescue effort during the Holocaust. The story of the Bielski Brothers became the subject of the 2008 Daniel Craig movie “Defiance.”
After the Nazis occupied Belarus in the summer of 1941, they began forcing the Jewish residents into ghettos, including the Jews of Lida and Novogrudek. At the same time, three brothers, Tuvia, Zus, and Asael Bielski, decided to flee to the forests in the surrounding areas. The brothers formed a partisan group by rescuing as many Jewish men, women and children as they could and formed a fully functioning community in the forest. By the time the group was liberated in 1944, the community numbered over 1,200 people. It was the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews during World War II. The existence and the survival of this group challenges the image of European Jews as passive victims of the Holocaust.
“Hope, courage, resistance, and heroism,” said Mr. Bielski. “These are words that are never used when we talk about the Holocaust. We can’t diminish the fact that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but we must remember those who fought back. What they did was as important as what Moses did to bring the Jews out of slavery in Egypt.”
During his remarks, Mr. Bielski singled out one of the Holocaust survivors in the audience, Ann Monka, of Montville, who was a member of the Bielski Partisans, and now a serves on the Whippany Holocaust Committee. After the event, Ms. Monka reflected on growing in a Partisan camp, surviving the Holocaust, and fighting battles with Nazi troops. “I learned to sing and dance in the partisan camp. My family was one of the few from my town that was able to survive intact, thanks to the heroism of the Bielski brothers,” Ms. Monka said. “The message of today’s event to children today is that you must never give up. You must live with hope and belief. If you believe in something, you can get through difficult times. And never follow a bad example.”
The Arts High School Classical Ensemble and the Newark Boys Chorus gave musical performances during the observance which was sponsored by the Holocaust Council of Metro West, The Berger Organization, LLC, Edison Properties, LLC, Temple B’nai Abraham of Livingston and Manischewitz.
“The City of Newark’s Holocaust Remembrance educates children from various Newark schools to the terrible history of the Holocaust. It further teaches them tolerance and the ability to get along with others,” said Miles Berger, Chairman of the Board of the Berger Organization, which helped sponsor the event.
“As part of the Newark community, we are delighted and honored to participate to a commemoration which is so important and which means so much to so many families,” said Paul Bensabat, Co-CEO of The Manischewitz Company.
“Those in attendance at this year’s service were privileged to hear one of the most extraordinary stories of bravery and hope to come out of the Holocaust. The Bielski family has the admiration of every Jew,” said Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham, which was in Newark for 120 years before moving to Livingston 40 years ago. Rabbi Kulwin served as Master of Ceremonies and Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, delivered the closing prayer.
More than 400 students from the following schools that are studying the Holocaust as part of their curriculum attended this year’s ceremony: Oliver Street School, Louise A. Spencer School, University High School, Weequahic High School, and Ironbound Catholic School.
“The Holocaust Council of MetroWest of the United Jewish Communities of New Jersey is thrilled to again be a co-sponsor of the City of Newark’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. Over the years, students who participate in this event learn not only about the history of the Holocaust but about resilience and resourcefulness in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges,” said Holocaust Council of MetroWest Director Barbara Wind.
After the ceremony, the students had time to talk Robert Bielski and the Holocaust Survivors and hear their stories over a kosher luncheon. The stories of the elderly men and women, who were children during the Holocaust, resonated with their listeners.
Shatiaa Burwell, an 11th grader from University High School, was moved to tears by the experiences of Holocaust survivor Harry Ettlinger. “It is one thing to hear about the Holocaust in class, but it’s another to hear it from someone who experienced it,” she said. “The Bielski family story really touched me. It’s very crucial to be brave and to be a hero.”
Mr. Ettlinger told Ms. Burwell, “We all smile together, feel together, weep together, and experience pain together. No-one is inferior.”
“It was an honor to meet someone who passed through so much history,” Oliver Street School 7th grader Erica Criabo said, after meeting Holocaust survivor Anitta Fox, who recalled acts of vicious anti-Semitism in pre-World War II Austria. “She taught me not to give up and to keep on trying. If you don’t give up on what you believe in, you can always succeed.”
“The observance was wonderful,” Ms. Fox said. “We have to remember our past. We have to build our future on the past, so that we can teach our children what not to do. We learn great things from bad experiences.”
For information on this or any other municipal program, contact the City of Newark’s Non-Emergency Call Center at (973) 733-4311.