Cranford community declares ‘never again’ at Holocaust remembrance ceremony

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CRANFORD, NJ — The Cranford community came together on April 14 for the 10th annual Cranford Community Holocaust Day of Remembrance ceremony to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Despite being held virtually this year, the event, which is sponsored by the Cranford Clergy Council, Cranford Public Schools, St Michael School and the Cranford Interfaith Human Relations Committee, was poignant.

The event’s host, the Rev. Cameron Overbey of Cranford United Methodist Church, explained that, though this event is only 10 years old, the individual groups that work together to put on this event each year previously held their own services; Cranford has been holding Holocaust remembrance services for approximately 27 years.

“Tonight’s service will be somber and will have its heavy moments; we are talking about the systemic incarceration and genocide of European Jews during the World War II era, and it was unfathomably terrible,” said Overbey, who is president of the Cranford Clergy Council. “It is hard to believe that such an unequivocally evil system could have been allowed to exist. Perhaps it’s even harder for us to imagine that it could ever happen, but we must remember that the Holocaust didn’t just appear — it was enabled by, among many things, hate-filled, dehumanizing and divisive rhetoric that manipulated people’s fears and uncertainties to vilify and dehumanize the Jewish people.

“Evil is rarely ever obvious to all the parties involved in the moment,” he continued. “We must actively resist this kind of hate-filled dehumanizing rhetoric and action in our communities, our country and in the world. Our remembrance must spur us on to action to ensure we do not allow such atrocities to happen in our time. We have much work to do already.”

Cranford Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty also discussed the need to continue to fight hatred, prior to reading aloud a township proclamation that commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, honored victims and liberators of the Holocaust, and encouraged residents to speak out when they see acts of bigotry and injustice.

“As Cranford’s mayor, I am honored to lend my voice to this Holocaust remembrance, but no words I could write or speak could ever be more powerful than those spoken by survivors like Simon Wiesenthal,” Prunty said, going on to quote Wiesenthal, who said: “For your benefit, learn from our tragedy. It is not a written law that the next victims must be Jews. It can also be other people. … For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”

“It was 76 years ago that Auschwitz was liberated,” Prunty said. “Sadly, as we commemorate this day, anti-Semitism is on the rise in this country. At the Jan. 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol, some rioters were wearing and displaying anti-Semitic messages and Nazi symbols. Just remembering is not enough. Remembering comes with a responsibility to stand up and speak out against hatred, bias and bigotry. Silence only emboldens those with hate in their hearts.”

Cranford Clergy Council member Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford spoke at length about how the Holocaust affected Jews from all walks of life and how silence from the global community allowed it to happen.

“This evening we gather to remember the six-year reign of terror known as the Holocaust. Between Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and the day that Germany surrendered … in 1945, 6 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis; millions of people of other races, religions and ethnic groups also died,” Kerbel said, remembering also the victims of the Holocaust who were targeted for being Romani, gay or political dissidents. “In April of 1945, the majority of the Jews of Europe were gone. Jews from big cities and little villages known as shtetls, doctors and lawyers, bricklayers and factory workers, Jews who spoke French, and Jews who spoke Greek or Italian or German or Yiddish — no one was spared.

“The Jews were called ‘parasites’ and ‘vermin.’ They were treated as less than human, and if you tell millions of people for years and years that Jews are not human and should be eradicated from the human race enough times and in enough places, and over enough years, you see the result,” Kerbel continued.

In his address, Kerbel quotes renowned Holocaust survivor Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke before Martin Luther King Jr. did at the March on Washington in 1963. Prinz, who later served as rabbi at Temple B’Nai Abraham in Newark, said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Kerbel stressed that silence is not an option, especially when we are seeing anti-Semitism growing worldwide, anti-Asian bigotry leading to violence, and anti-LGBTQ hatred leading to bullying and murder.

“When people are treated differently because of the color of their skin, when citizens of other countries are stripped of their rights, or citizens are mistreated because in some way they are not one of us, they are other — we need to speak out and we need to speak up,” Kerbel said. “Six million of my people were murdered, and the world was, for the most part, silent. In 1938, there was a conference in Evian, France, to talk about the fate of the Jews. No one wanted to let my people into their countries. The gates of America and Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were closed to most new immigrants. Some of my people could have been saved. The world was silent.”

Kerbel led the event’s candle-lighting ceremony, which is based on the Jewish tradition of lighting yahrzeit, or memorial, candles for those who have died.

Lighting the seven candles at this year’s event were Judith Podbelski, the former Cranford Public Schools social studies supervisor who was instrumental in organizing this annual service; St. Michael School Principal Sandy Miragliotta; Cranford Interfaith Human Relations Committee member Renee Herz; Cranford town administrator Jamie Cryan; Holocaust survivor Mollie Sperling; Connie and Clem Salerno, pastors from Calvary Tabernacle in Cranford; and Cranford High School student Ashley Cooper.

Cranford Superintendent of Schools Scott Rubin spoke about the importance of Holocaust education, citing a 2018 New York Times article, “Holocaust Is Fading From Memory, Survey Finds,” which featured a study that found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either had not heard of the Holocaust or weren’t sure if they had ever heard of it.

“As we get farther away from the actual events, 70-plus years now, it becomes less at the forefront of what people are talking about or thinking about or discussing or learning,” Rubin said, reminding event attendees that many Holocaust survivors are now in their 80s and 90s, and there are fewer living survivors each year. “It is essential that we gather year after year as a community to remember. We are fortunate in Cranford to have so many partners who recognize the importance of this event.”

Rubin thanked Podbelski, who retired from the district a few months ago, for her years of service and introduced the district’s new social studies supervisor, Gabrielle Rendek.

“This event holds particular importance and meaning in not only honoring the lives of those that were lost but also in recognizing the resiliency and courage in those who survived,” Rendek said. “Our schools serve as venues for our students to have important and challenging conversations, where they are able to build the empathy, nuanced historical understanding and strong character in order to be agents of change to ensure that acts of genocide like the Holocaust never happen again. However, it is events like tonight’s that break through the four walls of the classroom that benefit us as lifelong learners of all ages.”

Cranford Public Schools students participated heavily in the event, with CHS Academy Dance performing “Infinite”; Hillside Avenue School student Leah Gelfand sharing her human rights project on hate symbols; Orange Avenue School student Marcela Godoy-Pleitez sharing her human rights project on modern slavery; the Orange Avenue School eighth-grade chorus singing “Ani Ma’amin,” or “I Believe”; CHS students collaborating to present an art showcase while reading aloud quotes from noted Holocaust survivor and bestselling author Elie Wiesel; and the CHS Madrigal Choir performing “We Walk in Love,” by Deanna Witkowski, from “The Justice Choir Songbook.” Additionally, St. Michael School students Emily Harrington and Colleen Moraghan, from Isabella Fasolino’s class, read original poems.