ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — 76 years ago today, the Nazi German concentration camp at Auschwitz was liberated. When the Red Army arrived, around 7,000 prisoners remained at the camp, though around 1 million people were executed there.
That day, January 27, was chosen as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to “never forget,” and a day to bear witness to the 6 million people that were killed during the Nazi’s genocide during World War II.
“We always say it’s more important now than ever,” said Sarah Walters, the Holocaust Education and Community Relations program director for the Jewish Federation or Rochester. Her center is called CHAI (also the Hebrew for “life”): “Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information.”
While this day, and remembering the Holocaust is always important, it gains a certain urgency in this day and age:
A “Camp Auschwitz” shirt was spotted at the riot at the Capitol on January 6. Jewish institutions are turning to extra security measures, and a recent survey says that “nearly two-thirds of US residents under 40 don’t know that six million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust.”
That same survey rated New York as one of the states with the lowest levels of Holocaust knowledge.
Walters’ main job is education, and providing as many free resources as possible to as many people as possible. She does that through programming in schools, independent programs, and the Rochester Holocaust Survivor’s Archive.
The digital archive has been a collaborative effort between Monroe Community College’s “Holocaust Genocide and Human Rights Project,” Hobart and William Smith — Walter’s alma mater — and Rochester Institute of Technology.
The website has an extensive collection of photos, video testimonials, and written accounts of Holocaust survivors who live right here in Rochester. Walters says that these survivors — members of Rochester’s Jewish population of 17,000 — and describes the Holocaust survivor population as “vibrant” and diverse of experience.
Most of Walters’ job is providing facts and resources, which she says can only go so far when compared to hearing stories from the people who were actually there.
“Especially in the Jewish community, you hear the words never forget a lot,” she said. “I think part of the work of is to make sure that not only are we not forgetting, but that we’re teaching, that we’re always learning, that we’re always gathering new stories, new understanding.
I always hope that people who interact with our resources understand that by interacting with these resources, they become a witness,” she said. “It doesn’t take going to Germany and Poland necessarily to be aware of these stories, to be able to tell these stories, to share them with others. Once you’ve involved yourself in this work, involved yourself, in these stories, you become a witness, you become someone who can help continue the legacy of survivors, to tell these stories, to preach kindness, to make sure that you’re instrumental in fighting hate,” she said.
But Walters’ work goes beyond simply bearing witness: it’s about giving everyday people the tools to fight hate, combat injustice, and repairing the world by striving for love.
“Along with never forgetting, we’re also always acting towards love, towards kindness, towards acceptance,” she said. “When we see denial, we have the tools to fight denial. Hate begets, hate, antisemitism begets antisemitism and, and everything else they’re in… By creating this awareness, by engaging our community in these stories, we have the opportunity to really put into the hands of everyone in our community. The idea that everyone can make a difference. Everyone can be part of change. Everybody can be part of change for the better.”
The Jewish Federation and CHAI is also presenting a 45-minute film called “Nobody Wants Us.” Walters says it tells the story of Jewish refugees who were turned away from the US.
The movie is free to stream at nobodywantsus.com/rochester, and viewers can log in with the password “NWU.”
Excerpts from the Survivors Archive
I was born in Paris, France, in 1937. My parents, Max and Rose, manufactured women's clothing. Often the clothes were created just for me. My childhood, which I shared with my younger sister Florence, was happy and filled with joy. Sadly, after the Nazis occupied France, my family and I were forced to flee our secure world.
There was a strong presence of antisemitism in France before the occupation. When the Germans arrived, anti-Semitism intensified. All Jews over the age of six were required to wear the yellow Star of David. To this day, I remember how that star made me feel ashamed of my Jewishness.
My family and I were spared the fate of so many others because we were hidden by a Christian woman, Claire Chauveau. From 1942 to 1944, my younger sister Florence and I lived in a farmhouse in the village of Iteuil near Poitiers, with our parents hidden close by. For the sake of safety, we were forced to renounce any outward indication of our religious identity and attend church every Sunday.
Abe Rudnick was born Abe Rudnik, on January 15, 1926, the third child of Hershel and Rachel Kaplan Rudnik. He spent his early years at 12 Zamkowa Street in the small farming town of Olshany (originally Holszany), in Vilna Province. The town was surrounded by forests with lumber and flax as its main industry. Jews lived mostly in the town center near the public market.
in 1942, Abe was deported in a cattle car to Zesmary (Ziezmariai), a concentration camp in Lithuania. Here young Jewish men were crammed into two buildings, formerly a synagogue and a movie house, where Abe slept in a bunk bed. Abe, along with other able-bodied Jews, were forced to work crushing stones to build the highways guarded by Polish, Lithuanian and/or Ukrainian guards.
Later Abe boarded a cattle car with a large group of young men. It took them two weeks to reach the Vilna Ghetto. The weather was frigid, about 40 degrees below zero. This was the worst time for Abe as he came down with typhus and was hospitalized. After recovering, he worked on the railroad tracks, always managing to evade deportation. There was constant hunger. For Abe the Vilna Ghetto was the worst, he was always in danger of being selected and taken to the Ponar Forest and shot.
After eight months, in 1943, Abe was able to escape from a work detail.
Yakov was born September 13, 1934 in Kiev. The family lived a quiet middleclass life. Peter worked in hardware. He had a Jewish education and led the family in a religious life. They had a maid who looked after the children. There was also a Jewish man, a person who was intellectually slow, who brought water into the house every day. Bassia would feed him meals. The family lived on the 2nd floor of a 4 family house. The first floor had apartments for 3 families. The Nemirovsky’s lived in the 2nd floor in the only apartment on that floor. There was a big balcony off the living room as Yakov remembers. On the left of the balcony there was a large white marble fireplace which helped to warm the home. The large kitchen was in the corridor.
After this experience, Bassia wanted to move. Grandfather Zrulik said that the Arsenal was moving from Kiev to Siberia. The whole family prepared for departure. One half of a train car was reserved for the Nemirovsky family. It was filled with Yakov’s family, his grandparents as well as aunts and uncles. Just before the train started, Grandfather Zrulik said to Grandmother Riva, “Come, get off the train.” He decided that they would protect their homes. That was the last time Yakov saw his beloved grandparents. They were killed at Baba Yar.
After the 3rd day on the train, it was bombed. Yakov was severely injured. His leg was shattered and he almost lost it. The bones were pushed back through the skin and the skin was held together with safety pins. Fifty percent of the passengers perished in that bombing. They were stranded. There was no food, no water and very little medicines. Things were so very desperate that people were eating the meat of human corpses.
Finally, another train came and took the remaining people to Uzbekestan. They were let off in the middle of nowhere on a platform…no station. Officials told them to get off the train and then they were marched to Kermeneh near Tashkent in Uzbekestan.