Survivors affirm friendship, faith at Berkeley seder

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"It's the first time this is happening in my lifetime," he remarked. "I wasn't aware of so many people here. It's very impressive."

"Bringing together this part of our community is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate life," explained Ted Feldman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay, which sponsored the event. "That's what this holiday, Pesach, the feast of liberation, is all about."

Special guest Sherry Bard, community outreach coordinator for Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, agreed that "tonight's seder is an affirmation of our commitment to preserving the faith and values for which so many perished."

Name tags identified a broad map of birthplaces: Vienna; Stuttgart, Germany; Brussels; Budapest; Amsterdam; Globoke, Poland; and even Harbin, China. But as the evening progressed, it was clear that this group from far-flung birthplaces was feeling cohesive and communal.

Beth El Rabbi Ferenc Raj conducted the service and shared his joy that "people from all over the world are here in free America. This is one of the most wonderful days of my life." Raj himself was saved from the clutches of war when he was an infant, through the heroic efforts of Raoul Wallenberg.

It was a night of new connections as well as renewing acquaintances. Dinner partners 89-year-old Ben Woloschin and 88-year-old George Miller discovered they both served in the foreign regiment of France's volunteer army. Henri Korb found delight in running into friends he'd lost touch with 20 years ago. "There are a lot of familiar faces here. It's a great thing. I didn't expect such a big audience."

Veronica Berk, who survived Plazsow, the camp of the Schindler Jews, made a point of speaking to Raj. "I want to meet him. We are both from Hungary and I just found out my family has known him from way back when."

Cantor Brian Reich led the traditional Passover songs and included extra melodies such as "The Gefilte Fish Song," sung to the tune of "Home on the Range."

"I lost family in the Holocaust," he said, "and I look at these people and I see my great-grandparents and my grandparents. I'm sharing the seder with them, because I couldn't share one with my own grandparents." Indeed, the importance of keeping memories alive from generation to generation permeated the evening.

Eleven-year-old Nathan Roter, accompanying parents Isaiah and Trina, was the obvious choice to read the Four Questions. "He has no competition," Raj joked, as Nathan walked to the microphone and led the whole group in the reading.

When the boy returned to his seat, Emmie Vida, who earlier related the hardships of her 1939 Passover in Prague, leaned across the table to thank him. "It was good that you came. Without you there would be no seder."

The evening wound down amid an exchange of phone numbers. Even volunteer Deborah Corwin, who helped with the "serving and shmoozing," found the event emotionally moving. "Everybody bonded and it was an amazing feeling of togetherness. It was like my family was here."