Beyond 6 million, service honors all genocide victims

Every spring since 1951, Jews have collectively grieved the genocide of 6 million of their own on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last week, Santa Rosa's Reform congregation used the occasion to mourn not only for Jewish victims of Hitler's systematic killing but for all Nazi targets — gays and lesbians, Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, political prisoners and religious people of conscience.

In what is believed to be the first observance of its kind, representatives of each of the targeted groups participated in an emotion-wrenched observance at Congregation Shomrei Torah. Rabbi George Gittleman also introduced representatives of groups exterminated outside Hitler's camps: Armenians, Cambodians and Native Americans.

"No one should walk alone through the valley of this very dark death," Gittleman told the more than 100 people who gathered for the unusual commemoration. "Yes, we were their main target. Still, we were not the Nazis' only victims. Five million other souls perished in their hands.

"Ultimately, the Shoah's bloody finger points to a universal, global issue that includes the memories of millions upon millions of victims of genocide before, during and after the Shoah. These brave souls who came today to represent their communities — the Armenians, the Cambodians, the Native Americans — share our fate and our future equally. Their suffering was no less grievous, their abuse just as reprehensible," said the rabbi, dressed in black.

"'Never again' is only a truly meaningful, truly moral, slogan if it is applied universally."

The voice of Armenians has rarely been heard, Gittleman said. Christyne Davidian, founder of Armenian Americans of the North Bay, spoke for herself and her ancestors, an estimated 1.5 million murdered between 1915 and 1923 by the Turks. "Our two people have the kind of bond neither one would wish for," she said. "We know too well how genocide affects a people, their families and a future. We are so moved and thank you for remembering our victims as well."

The annual Yom HaShoah commemoration usually includes lighting six candles, one for each million Jews killed. Some observances include a seventh candle, a lone flame representing the 5 million non-Jews slain, or a candle of hope. At Shomrei Torah, participants lit 11 candles, six for the Jewish victims and five for the others.

Each of the 11 glass candleholders was marked with a star, in the color of the symbols Nazis made their prisoners wear. Yellow for Jews, for example, and pink for homosexuals. Walter Kuttner, a Jewish survivor who lives in Santa Rosa, lit the first candle. "This flame will symbolize our determination to oppose all discrimination against human beings," he said.

The Nazis murdered about 1.5 million Roma, more commonly but less accurately called Gypsies.

Jewish survivor Lillian Todd remembered seeing Roma women in 1944 in a death camp. "After the first day, after our hair was shaven," she said, "a large group of women came to us screaming: 'Go where you came from. You come to take our place from us.' They were Gypsies. They were gone the next day. By then, I knew the Gypsies were taken to the crematorium."

Sani Rifati, a Rom from Kosovo who lives in Sebastopol, works as president of the Voice of Roma to illuminate the ethnic cleansing his people continue to suffer.

"I light this candle to bring to light what is happening today and what is happening tomorrow," said Rifati, his face strained, his voice cracking with emotion. "Being Roma in liberated Kosovo today you cannot speak your mother tongue, you cannot go to the grocery, children don't go to school, and the parents don't have jobs."

Then, in his native language, he sang a song written to a lover imprisoned at Auschwitz.

Gittleman urged the congregation to focus on the strength and courage of survivors. "We are great at seeking the stories of their persecution but not at trying to understand the source of their great courage and wisdom in choosing life after walking through the shadow of death," he said.

Corey Bornstein, a 13-year-old from Santa Rosa wearing braces and an ear-to-ear smile, is a grandchild of survivors. He lit a candle "for all of my grandparents who escaped with barely their lives, and for me, who sees hope in their eyes when they look at me."

Gittleman explained why he opened the service to all genocide victims. "Our healing is tied, in part, to recognizing the suffering of other victims of radical evil," he said. "The weight of the Shoah lightens a bit when we recognize that it was not just about the Jews. Not only is the burden lightened but also the chance for a real tikkun, a real repair, a real healing opens up as well."