By Matt Zeidel
The Sheepshead Bay waterfront played host Sunday to a bittersweet recognition of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps across Europe. The theme of the day was “Am Yisrael chai,” a Hebrew phrase that translates to “The People Israel Live.” The ceremony, held in the Holocaust Memorial Park at the end of Sheepshead Bay, was as much a remembrance of those gone as a celebration of the present and future. Toward that end, a somber recalling of the horrors of the Holocaust, complete with benediction and honor guard procession, were mingled with a buoyant musical presentation and an art contest involving local schools. Col. Jacob Goldstein, the New York Army National Guard’s Jewish chaplain, said a memorial prayer, and Jewish veterans of the U.S. armed forces in World War II and other wars showed their pride by wearing their medals and, for some, partial uniforms. The honor guard, from the Veteran Corps of Artillery, State of New York, 7th Regiment of Infantry, flew the colors during the singing of both the American and Israeli national anthems. The anthems were sung by cantor Naftali Peer, with backup from members of the Bay Academy Chorus. Robert Bielsky, the president of the Holocaust Memorial Committee, spoke to the audience about the liberation of the death camps in 1945, saying that as the Nazis realized they were losing Europe, they tried to destroy the camps and any evidence of their existence. But for the Allied soldiers who liberated the camps, he said, nobody but the survivors would know what had come to pass. And that, he said, is a problem, since subsequent generations have forgotten much of the death and many of the lessons of the Holocaust – and some people, of course, deny it even happened. That’s why, he said, the survivors are so important. “The survivors are the keepers of the memory, the witnesses to the evil,” Bielsky said. “As the survivors leave us, the work of persevering their memories becomes even more important.” At the central structure of the memorial park, commemorators lit six special candles to represent different groups affected by the camps: among them were Jewish veterans of both the U.S. and the USSR and of course, death camp survivors. Anton Ganz, a Romanian-born camp survivor of both Auschwitz and Birkenau and an American veteran, talked about his time at the camps and his subsequent liberation. His town was declared a ghetto, he said, and then the Nazis eventually forced everyone left in it into cattle cars and sent them to Auschwitz. “When we reached our destination, I could see the words on the fence: ‘Arbeit macht frei,’” German for “Work shall set you free.” His parents and sisters, he said, disappeared before he even got through the gates. Only he and his brother were left. “They took away your identity, you were nobody. You were just a number,” he said, pulling up his sleeve to reveal the age-worn but still unmistakable numerical tattoo he was given at Auschwitz. He said that after Auschwitz he went to Birkenau, and when word came that the Americans were on their way, he was moved to Bergen-Belsen and was close to execution before being liberated by the British in April 1945. Much of the ceremony, though, despite the grim nature of its subject matter, was not entirely steeped in sadness. Actor, musician and Jewish advocate Theodore Bikel, who was honored with the Am Yisrael Chai Freedom Award at the ceremony, sang Yiddish and Russian songs with the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar. The audience cheered him along and clapped with the rhythm, and even those listening from the other side of the bay probably understood: This day was as much about marking a great tragedy as it was about celebrating great life and a shared cultural heritage. Part of the celebration of life was a parade of youth: the winning entries of a school art and essay contest remembering the Holocaust were on display, and the winners were recognized near the end of the ceremony. Local dignitaries who addressed those assembled included Borough President Marty Markowitz, City Councilmember Mike Nelson, State Senator Carl Kruger, Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz and Regina S. Perruggi, the president of Kingsborough Community College. The June 18 ceremony was at least the second time this year that southern Brooklyn Jews have commemorated the Holocaust. The internationally- recognized day of remembering the Holocaust, Yom haShoah, was May 6. It falls on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, and therefore its date on the Julian calendar changes from year to year. It typically falls in either April or May. Sunday’s remembrance, though, reflects the passing of 60 years since 1945, the year in which Allied forces took Europe and freed the death camp prisoners. One older man, a Borough Park resident who wanted only to be called Tzvi, attended most of Sunday’s memorial. Unlike Yom haShoah, for him the most recent ceremony was a sad day punctuated by a strong, upbeat sense of Jewish survival. “The message is obvious: To remember!” he said. “Not to ever forget.” Grime-busting students from Roy H. Mann Intermediate School were honored last week with City Council citations and hearty applause. At Community Board 18’s monthly meeting, Councilmember Lew Fidler presented the students with certificates, and board members were treated to a video presentation by the Bergen Beach Youth Organization showcasing students’ efforts. About 20 students from the school, located at 1420 East 68th Street, remove graffiti on local buildings twice a week, as part of the program. The students are also working on creating a mural in the community. “These young men and women have real values—and certainly it is value added to our neighborhood,” Fidler said.