BY ANGELA MATUA
Stories were shared and prayers were offered to the victims of the Holocaust during a special service last week at the Rockwood Park Jewish Center in Howard Beach.
Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, honors both the more than 6 million people who died at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War II and those who survived the atrocity. The event, which was hosted at the synagogue on Thursday, April 16, honored four Holocaust survivors: Nathan Berkowitz, Martin Braun, Jack Gruer and Judy Berkowitz.
After a candle lighting service, the audience sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz welcomed the crowd along with Bernard Fisch, president of the Rockwood Park Jewish Center.
Public officials including Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton, Fr. Francis Colamaria of St. Helen’s Church, state Senator Joseph Addabbo and Deputy Inspector Jeffrey Schiff, commanding officer of the 106th Precinct, made opening remarks.
Helen Greenblat, Rabbi Berkowitz’s cousin, told the story of her mother and father, who were both held in concentration camps to put a face to the numbers we so often hear.
“It’s something we can’t comprehend, but we can tell the stories and they can come to life and pay tribute by telling the stories,” Greenblat said.
Greenblat spoke about her parents before the war to emphasize that they lived a “normal” life, as well as the challenges they faced when starting over.
“They were absolutely heroic for starting all over again and continuing after what [they’d] been through, the losses they suffered, the misery they endured,” Greenblat said.
Her parents were both in their mid-teens when the war started and both lost family members as a result.
Greenblat’s father, Max Traeger, lived in Warsaw, Poland, and worked in his father’s shoe factory after dropping out of school in the fifth grade. According to Greenblat, the extreme anti-Semitism he faced in school caused him to leave.
Traeger and his family were forced into labor camps after Germany invaded Poland. Traeger, the lone survivor, lived in the camps for five years.
Ilona Lax, Greenblat’s mother, was forced out of her house in Czechoslovakia to a nearby ghetto along with her sister, two brothers and father. Soon after, they were put on cattle cars to be escorted to Auschwitz. Upon arrival at the death camp, Lax’s father and brother were both killed.
Lax and her sister, Lily, were liberated from Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany, by British soldiers. To start a new life, they created a kosher kitchen and a synagogue. When Lax’s sister got engaged, she requested that her fiancé get her a white wedding gown.
“I couldn’t believe when I heard the story. They went through hell, they lost so many of their family members and she’s telling him she wants a white wedding gown,” Greenblat said.
Rations were implemented and instead of coffee and cigarettes, Lily Lax’s fiancé requested a white German parachute. The makeshift gown has been used by 17 brides, including Greenblat’s mother.
“That to me is a symbol of renewed life,” said Greenblat.