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Recalling the past, praying for the future - Survivors gather and recount harrowing ordeal of the Holocaust

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Nearly 1,000 Holocaust survivors and many others filled Borough Park’s Temple Young Israel-Beth El recently for a somber remembrance of the Holocaust.

Sponsored by the Brooklyn-based Nachas Health Family Network, the second annual event, held at the temple (4802 15th Avenue) drew from the 5,000 survivors living in New York City who comprise an estimated 90 percent of all American survivors.

“You, the survivors, have kept the memory of the Holocaust fresh in the mind of the world,” said Joe Lazar, the event’s emcee and the son of Holocaust survivors who was born in a Displaced Persons camp. “I grew up remembering, and I have taught my children to remember, and they are teaching their children to remember,” he said.

The event honored diplomats from five nations from whom certain people, if not the state itself, played a role in rescuing European Jews: the Dominican Republic, Denmark, Japan, Spain, and China.

Between 1938 and 1945, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo issued 5,000 visas to European Jews, offering them each 80 acres of land, 10 cows, a mule, and a horse.

Though only 645 Jews came over, Trujillo’s anomalous act of kindness – he was, as Borough President Marty Markowitz said at the ceremony, “not a paragon of human rights” – retains a place of gratitude in the hearts of the Jewish people.

Jews in Denmark lived in peace for the first few years after Germany’s occupation of the country, but in 1943, Germany declared a state of emergency calling for the deportation of Danish Jews.

In response, the Danish people, including high government and church officials, teamed up on a massive rescue effort. Taking their cue from King Christian X, the Danes smuggled approximately 7,200 of the country’s 7,800 Jews to safety in Sweden.

It might seem odd to honor Japan, a country allied with Hitler during World War II, at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

But Thursday’s ceremony recognized the contribution of Sempro Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued 2,000 illegal visas to Lithuanian Jews between July and August of 1940.

Sugihara was forced to resign for his refusal to obey orders, but his courage and decency have not been forgotten.

Spanish diplomats also broke with their country’s support of Hitler by issuing visas to Jews. Yesterday’s event honored seven diplomats from Spain, who in defiance of dictator Francisco Franco, saved countless Jewish lives.

As for China, the event honored Feng-Shan Ho, a mid-level diplomat who issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews so they could go to the United States and Great Britain via Shanghai.

Ho’s actions defied the position of Chen Jia, the Chinese Ambassador to Berlin, who wanted to promote good relations with Germany.

“Like you, I am deeply moved by the examples of sacrifice by today’s honorees,” said City Comptroller William Thompson, the event’s keynote speaker.

The event’s main focus, however, was the survivors themselves. As many of the speakers noted, their experience is as relevant today as ever.

“These survivors, their stories, and the lessons they teach, are unquestionably our greatest resource in turning the tide of intolerance in our time,” Thompson said.

“The horrors of the Holocaust are still with us more than 60 years later,” declared Markowitz in an impassioned speech that nearly brought him to tears.

Warning of the consequences of inaction in the face of human rights abuses, Markowitz blamed the Holocaust on “the people, not only the guilty but the ones who did nothing.”

“Nations of the world remained quiet. We weren’t even worth picking up a finger to help,” he said.

Personal recollections of the horrors of the Holocaust were still fresh in the minds of survivors in attendance.

“Today is a said reminder. After the war, I couldn’t even read about it. You can’t live with these memories every day, so you try to forget,” said Alex Gross, who was taken to Auschwitz when he was 18.

“All my life, I’ll have in my mind the memory of Auschwitz – you can’t forget it, said Nisen Ganz.

“There are those that deny it. But we have to get together to never forget that such a tragedy happened.”

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