The annual Yiddishpiel Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs commemoration held at the Jerusalem Theater Thursday was advertised to start at 9.50 a.m. And, indeed at that time, most of the audience – comprised largely of Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s, many of them relying on canes and walkers for their mobility – were seated; there were only a handful of stragglers.
But the reason for the strange starting time became clear 10 minutes later with the wail of the memorial siren, which is equivalent to a military “Last Post” bugle or trumpet call.
Age was momentarily ignored, as everyone jumped up, straight-backed with the synchronized alacrity of robots.
With the exception of a couple of songs in Hebrew, the whole program was in Yiddish, based mainly on excerpts from diaries written by children and adults in the Warsaw Ghetto.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Warsaw had the largest Jewish community in Europe.
A 15-year-old boy mused about his bar mitzva at Warsaw’s impressive Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street, which was initially outside the ghetto, and was later razed to the ground by the Nazis.
Before the war, the street – in which the synagogue stood in all its glory – was reminiscent of Switzerland, he wrote. In the ghetto, half a million people were crowded together like sardines. He and his teenage friends had taken a vow that whoever of them survived would tell the story.
A little girl wrote that if it was hard to be a Jew, it was even harder to be a little Jewish girl, whose parents had handed her over to strangers, who then pulled her up on a ladder and put her in a dark loft where her only companions were mice. Her mother had handed her over without a kiss or a pinch of her cheek, and had not looked back when she left.
“If you were going to give me away, why did you give birth to me at all?” wrote the child.
An adult wrote of how important it was to teach Jewish children catechism – Christian doctrine – so that they would know what to do in church if necessary, while at the same time making sure that boys – even those who were not yet old enough – would know how to lay phylacteries, and girls would know the appropriate prayer for lighting Sabbath candles – to ensure that no matter how often and for how long they had to pretend to be Catholic, they would not forget that they were Jewish.
One child wrote of the descent of silence.
AT FIRST the adults spoke in lowered tones, and then in whispers, until eventually there was total silence. The risk of being overheard by the wrong people could mean death.
There was also a heart-warming tale of members of the Celis family in Belgium who sheltered and saved the lives of the four Rotenberg children, aged two-16. After placing Regine, Sonia, Wolfgang and Sigmund with Father Hubert in September of 1942, their parents, Moszek and Tena Rotenberg, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
The Celis family included 80-year-old Joseph, his daughters Bona and Lucy and his sons Hubert and Louis, who were both priests. Also involved in protecting the children were Marie Louise Tabruyn, who was the housekeeper of Father Louis; Alfons and Clementina Maris; and Baron Raymond and Baroness Marcelle de Tornaco – all of whom were recognized in 1980 as Righteous among the Nations.
The children were split up among different members of the family, but still had to move around, sometimes staying with the Baron and the Baroness.
Hubert was arrested several times by Belgian police, but was able to talk his way out because the arresting officers were Catholics who would not put a priest in prison. Regine was eventually caught and sent to Auschwitz – she survived.
After the war, the Rotenberg children migrated to America but remained in touch with the Celis family. When Regine got married, it was Father Hubert, the last known person to have seen her parents before their arrest, who led her to the bridal canopy.
The only light in the auditorium during the readings was on stage, but at the close of the ceremony, when the Partisan’s Song – the anthem of the survivors – was sung, a dim light penetrated the pitch darkness of the large room, symbolizing that not all was lost. “The Partisan’s Song” (which had been omitted from the Yad Vashem ceremony the previous evening) was followed by “Hatikva” and the auditorium was suffused with light.
If any additional symbolism of Jewish survival was needed, it was out in the street. As people emerged from the theater they saw a phalanx of hundreds of Israeli high school students walking through the streets of Talbiyeh toward the theater. These will one hopes be the next generation of flag bearers for Jewish survival.