The crowd of over 200 rose in respect on Sunday as more than a dozen Holocaust survivors and their families walked to the front of the synagogue. Soon Harvey Moser, a 47-year member of Temple Israel and former Great Neck resident, stood up to tell his story.
Moser touched upon his life as a child in Germany in the 1930s, how his family crossed the border into France, as well as the voyage of the damned aboard the SS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees that was turned away from Cuba.
The crowd gasped at certain moments, such as when Moser recalled a terrified man cutting his wrist and throwing himself overboard so he wouldn’t be forced to return to Europe.
Ultimately, Moser said, he and his family managed to escape Europe aboard a freighter headed to New York City. On that very same day, he added, there were reports of Nazi troops marching in Paris.
“End of story,” Moser concluded.
Rabbi Howard Stecker, who spoke at the ceremony on Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance, said Moser brought a human tone and story that can appeal to everyone. It was also a diverse crowd, he noted, whose origins ranged from Middle Eastern to Eastern European.
“It’s just nice to see everyone together to have this feeling of unity — that this is something we share,” Stecker said.
Temple Israel has had commemoration ceremonies like these for over two decades. Each year there were slight changes, like having a different speaker to bring a different tone to the service. But the takeaway has remained largely the same.
“That this was a very dark hour — more than an hour — in our history and we must never forget,” said Lori Oppenheimer, chair of the Temple Shoah Remembrance Committee. “We must take the lessons from this and try to apply it to other situations in our lives.”
This year’s remembrance comes at a time where many survivors are dying. Of the original 36 known survivors in Temple Israel, 16 have died. Some did not attend due to ill health.
“They’re all in their 80s and 90s now,” noted Marc Katz, a publicist for Temple Israel, “and that number is going down.”
Stecker emphasized the need to share these firsthand stories with the next generation. He also noted that these talks, coming from an actual survivor, are pivotal to preventing Holocaust denial from growing.
“There’s nothing more important,” Stecker said. “[Even] while they are alive, there are people claiming either that the Holocaust didn’t happen at all, or that it’s exaggerated.”
“There’s no substitute,” Stecker added.
The ceremony featured a Maariv service, performances from the Gahelet Children’s Choir and Temple Israel Children’s Choir, and various songs, including the Hymn of the Jewish Partisans. At the end of the service, people went outside to leave small candles at the Holocaust memorial statue.