For survivors of the Holocaust, the difference between life and death could hang on a chance event like a case of appendicitis, the actions of a conscientious neighbor, or a nervous military official. Three local survivors told their stories and described these “turning points” at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony held in the Supervisors’ Chambers at the Santa Clara County building on Tuesday, April 9.
The President of the Board of Supervisors, Ken Yeager, presented a declaration from the Board marking April 9 as “Holocaust Remembrance Day” in the county. Speaking about the importance of the event, he noted, “As we reflect on the past, we should think about the present and the future. There are still too many injustices in the world. What will be the turning point that spurs you, that spurs all of us, into action? What will make us go from bystander to advocate?”
Each of the survivor speakers was introduced by students from Archbishop Mitty High School, who provided historical context for the stories that would follow. During Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in November of 1938, after which German Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Henry Stone was in the hospital with appendicitis. He escaped being arrested and when he was ordered to report to the Gestapo, he accidentally went to the wrong office, where a sympathetic official let him go. He had previously applied for a visa to come to the U.S. and before he was arrested again, he was able to get his papers and leave the country before the war broke out.
Survivor Werner Cohen was unable to be present, due to his wife’s recent surgery, but the students, Jeffrey Brunetto and Chris Brandariz described the heroic efforts of the people of Denmark who, though occupied by the Nazis, refused to cooperate in deporting Jews when ordered to do so in October, 1943. The Danes gathered fishing boats, rowboats, and kayaks and transported Jews to safety in Sweden. One of those rescued was Werner Cohen, whose family had moved from Germany to Denmark after his father had married a Dane.
When the Nazis took over Hungary in October of 1944, the last country they occupied, George Denes had been sheltered in a daycare program, as his mother was a caretaker for a Christian family. His father, however, had been put in a slave labor camp. The new government was run by members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Fascist Party. Denes and his father were among a group of Hungarian Jews who were taken to the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, where their captors ordered them to take off their shoes and then began to systematically shoot them. As the executioners came closer to George and this father, a soldier on the bridge began to shout at them to stop. The bridge had been packed with explosives as a defense measure against the advancing Russian army, and the soldier was concerned that a stray bullet would set them off unintentionally. Denes and his father were spared and later managed to escape from the work group.
A candle lighting ceremony opened the event, with representatives of Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Jain, and Protestant Christian traditions calling to mind the many victims of the Holocaust: children, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the mentally disabled. They also recalled victims of other genocides of Rwandans, Bosnians, and Native Americans.
The Rev. Bruce Bramlett, a Holocaust educator, presided over the ceremony, which included a musical interlude with a cello solo by Peter Gelfand of Symphony Silicon Valley, the Kaddish prayer for the dead, and candle lighting on behalf of all those lost in the Holocaust.
A video of the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony can be seen on the Santa Clara County government website.