William Donat stood at the podium in the dimly lit main sanctuary of Congregation Emanu-El and peered out at the 2,500 solemn faces sitting in the pews.
"As I look out at the audience this Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day], I see fewer survivors out there," noted Donat, a child of Holocaust survivor and author Alexander Donat. "Time is taking its toll. And it is fair to ask what shall be when all the adult survivors are gone?"
The answer could be found all around Donat, a child survivor of the Warsaw ghetto.
Adorning the huge pillars of the cavernous Reform synagogue last Sunday were square blue banners commanding "Remember 6,000,000." A large white banner draped across the balcony proclaimed in blue letters, "We Shall Never Forget Our Six Million Martyrs." Dozens of memorial candles lined the stage, all arranged in groups of six.
The annual rite, the 57th "Day of Collective Remembrance," is sponsored by the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization. Elected officials, including New York’s Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Charles Schumer, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani stopped by to issue official government proclamations declaring this week, Holocaust Remembrance Week. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the new chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that the Holocaust must be used as a force for life.
And Donat himself provided an answer to his question.
"As long as we younger survivors are here, as long as your children and mine are here, we shall carry on this sacred commemoration. We shall prepare our children to continue for many generations to come." Noting the theme of this year’s event: Remembering the Six Million in the 21st Century, Pataki said, "Jews and non-Jews alike must remember to educate future generations." (New York State and New Jersey have mandatory school Holocaust education programs.)
Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Holocaust influences U.S. foreign policy, forcing Americans to ask what it is doing to prevent another Holocaust in the world. He reminded the audience of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s refusal to send American bombers to destroy the railway route to Auschwitz. Giuliani offered a Holocaust anecdote "on a personal level," recalling that as a U.S. Attorney, he handled the extradition case of two Nazi war criminals. Taking the case home one night, he read memos of how the concentration camp head sent messages to Berlin "bragging about how many people were killed that day."
"I dropped the documents," Giuliani said, "and to this day I still can’t understand."
Event organizer Benjamin Meed, president of WAGRO, said several recent world events give hope for sustained Holocaust remembrance around the world, noting last January’s Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, "where leaders from 43 nations went on record to assure the world that they would devote their efforts and resources to the perpetuation of Holocaust memory and education." He also cited historian Deborah Lipstadt’s legal victory over Holocaust denier David Irving, and Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
"We live in a world of gestures," Meed said. "History will record that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church was bowed by the weight of the moment."
There were many symbolic gestures during the two-hour ceremony.
Six Holocaust survivors lit memorial candles along with their child or grandchild. Cantor Moshe Schulhof and children’s choir of Riverdale’s Kinneret Day School sang Yiddish songs.
And in the end, when words no longer sufficed, there was a minute of silence.