Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times / May 2, 2011
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MAY 2, 2011

Survivors, Jews and non-Jews gather in Los Angeles to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day (LA Times)

Survivors, Jews and non-Jews gather in Los Angeles to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day

Dozens of Holocaust survivors meet to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, an occasion to honor the 6 million or more who perished in Europe during World War II.

By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times

May 2, 2011

Renee Firestone was just a young woman when she and her family were taken from their home in Czechoslovakia on a three-day trip in cattle cars to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

There, Firestone's family was separated. Her father, mother, and sister were eventually killed.

The 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, who wears a gold tree of life necklace, has spent the past several decades of her life speaking about the atrocities she experienced firsthand, delivering this simple message: "Understand that there's only one race in this world, and that's the human race. And we should stop killing each other."

Firestone was among dozens of Holocaust survivors who were on hand Sunday at Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, an occasion when Jews and non-Jews alike honor the 6 million Jews who perished in Europe during World War II.

Also known as Yom HaShoah, the commemoration in Los Angeles is in its 19th year and is billed as the largest in California. Hundreds of residents attended along with numerous state, county and city leaders.

"With each passing year, fewer and fewer survivors are here to tell their stories," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "It is up to us to ensure their stories live on."

Although he is not Jewish, Villaraigosa told the crowd, "I have a responsibility to bear witness, just as you do."

Rabbi Stewart Vogel opened the ceremony by talking about how hatred and racism can lead to such atrocities. He spoke about the recent anti-Semitic vandalism at Calabasas High School, which included swastikas, a picture of Hitler, and words such as "gas chamber."

"On this Yom HaShoah, remember that indifference is not acceptable in this world," he said.

A choir sang several Jewish songs, including "Zog Nit Keyn Mol," the "Hymn of the Partisans," and candles were lighted in honor of those who died. Nearby were the newly opened Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and the L.A. Holocaust Monument, which has six tall black pillars symbolic of the crematoriums where Jews and others were burned.

Inside the museum was a special exhibit titled "First Person Holocaust: Diaries and Memories" that includes personal chronicles, such as the memoir of Josef Brojde, which depicts life inside the Bialystock Ghetto, in Poland, during the war.

For some, like survivor Natan Gipsman, the day was an intensely painful experience because "it brings back bad memories; it reminds me of the suffering."

Jacob Dayan, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, addressed the crowd by saying that Sunday was a day to "turn back to the dark, painful, and miserable pages of history" and to remind the world about the horrors.

It's our responsibility to pass "the torch to future generations," Dayan said. "The world should listen; the world should act; the world should make sure this never happens again," he said. "Not just to the Jewish people, but to all people."

John Loftus, who is known for helping expose Nazis who engaged in espionage work for the U.S. government behind the Iron Curtain after the war, was the featured speaker at Sunday's event and told the crowd that there is a lot more to learn about the Holocaust.

In an earlier interview, Loftus said additional classified government documents should be released and that many State Department and Justice Department officials — who he said had intelligence about the relationship between the U.S. government and Nazis — should be granted immunity so they can tell their full stories.

Ben Van Derfluit, 25, attended the event with his grandmother, 90-year-old Betty Cohen, who survived the Holocaust. Van Derfluit once asked his grandmother to speak to one of his college history classes so they could hear what it was like from someone who was there.

"I really question how many people, even young Jewish kids, know what happened," Van Derfluit said. "Let's do [a commemoration] for another 150,000 years."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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