Yom HaShoah events include honoring a Czech Torah that survived the Holocaust

Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remem-brance Day, falls on April 8 and groups around the Bay Area will take different approaches to the question of how to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

Many of the remembrances will take place April 7 and will include readings of victims’ names and memorial candlelightings. As part of its service that day, Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton will commemorate a Torah that survived the Holocaust even after Nazis seized it.

Beth Emek congregant Andy Kessler developed the ceremony to honor his father, a Holocaust survivor who spent time in the Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Berga concentration camps and passed away in 2011. Kessler said that in planning the program, he was faced with difficult questions.

Andy Kessler holds the Torah that will be honored by Congregation Beth Emek.

“How do you talk to children about the Holocaust? How sad do you want to make the ceremony? How do you signify what the Holocaust is?” he said. “This ceremony fits because it’s about the spirit of the Torah.”

The Torah is one of 1,564 that the Nazis took from synagogues when they invaded Czechoslovakia. For unknown reasons, the Nazis did not destroy the scrolls, which survived the war and were distributed to Jewish communities around the world with the hope of reintegrating them into Jewish life. Beth Emek received its scroll in 1967.

Since no one knows where in Czechoslovakia this Torah came from, Beth Emek will adopt it on behalf of Ceska Liepa, a town in the Czech Republic that is the birthplace of the grandmother of Beth Emek congregant and Holocaust survivor Walter Gewing.

Gewing’s family fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938, but when he, his father and brothers immigrated to the United States in 1948 they were forced to leave Gewing’s mother behind because she had contracted tuberculosis and couldn’t obtain a visa. He never saw his mother again.

Gewing, 82, has talked to high school students in the Bay Area about his experiences and he said that this ceremony will help teenagers relate to Jewish history.

“This provides a tangible connection. It’s relatively difficult to understand or connect to a story when there’s no physical evidence,” he said. “It shows that although there were attempts to exterminate us, we survived.”

In 2009, a sofer (scribe) determined that the Torah is at least 120 years old, and it remains in good condition. Kessler said that because of his father’s experience the Torah has a “deeper meaning” for him and his family. He said his wife held the torah during her conversion ceremony and his 9- and 11-year-old boys will read from it during their bar mitzvahs in coming years.

Beth Emek’s ceremony will take place at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at Congregation Beth Emek, 3400 Nevada Court, Pleasanton. It is free and open to the public. For more information visit www.bethemek.org.

The JCC of San Francisco will host a very different Holocaust Remembrance Day event when it teams up with organizations, including Lehrhaus Judaica, for an all-day program of study sessions, a panel discussion and a reading of names.

The program will honor the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and in one study session U.C. Berkeley professor of Jewish history John Efron will discuss the history of the ghetto. There will also be a study session on the history and cultural contexts of anti-Semitism and a roundtable for young adults on shaping the narratives about the Holocaust.

The program will run from 1:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. It is free, but reservations are recommended. www.jccsf.org.

Here are more Yom HaShoah events taking place around the Bay Area:

Despite being at least 120 years old, the Czech Torah remains in good condition.

Sunday, April 7

The city of Berkeley Holocaust remembrance will honor survivors with a program that includes music by composer Aaron Blumenfeld. It will take place at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. 11 a.m. Free. (510) 643-2526.

The JCC of the East Bay will host “Yes We Sang!” a community Yom HaShoah concert with Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn and Nigunim Community Folk Chorus. At JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. 4 p.m. $10, free for children and seniors. www.jcceastbay.org.

South Peninsula communities will come together for “Life and Resistance in the Ghettos: 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” a remembrance that will include music, reading, prayer and a message from Israel by S.F.-based Consul General Andy David. At Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. 5 p.m. Free. www.betham.org.

The theme of the Sonoma County Yom HaShoah community commemoration will be the “Future of Holocaust Memory” and it will offer perspectives from three generations. The ceremony will take place at the Friedman Center, 4676 Mayette Ave., Santa Rosa. 2 p.m. Free. www.jccsoco.org.

Temple Beth Hillel will hold a Yom HaShoah service at Temple Beth Hillel, 801 Park Central, Richmond. 7 p.m. Free. www.tbhrichmond.org.

A commemoration at Temple Isaiah will feature Yiddish songs presented by opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell. At Temple Isaiah, 945 Risa Road, Lafayette. 4 p.m. Free. www.temple-isaiah.org. (See story, 29)

In Marin, three Holocaust survivors will tell their personal stories.  There will also be an adult choir and music by Klezmer Soul. At Congregation Rodef Sholom, 170 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael. 4 p.m. Free. www.rodefsholom.org.

Elaine Leeder, a former visiting scholar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will give a talk, “Never Again: How Can We Make It So?” at the commemoration of Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. 10:30 a.m. Free.  www.shomreitorah.org.

Survivors, refugees and family members will share stories at Or Shalom Jewish Community, 1250 Quintara St, S.F. 3 p.m. Free. www.orshalom.org.

Harry Brod, who is a child of Holocaust survivors and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, will discuss the meaning of the Holocaust for present generations at Congregation Shir Hadash, 20 Cherry Blossom Lane, Los Gatos. 6:30 p.m. Free. www.shirhadash.org.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa will host a remembrance day event in which sisters and Holocaust survivors Debbie Sessler and Beppy Leaver will give a keynote talk. The event, which will also include musical performances, will take place at Congregation Beth Shalom, 1455 Elm St., Napa. 4 p.m. Free. Please RSVP to (707) 251-9092.

A community  commemoration in Oakland with Holocaust survivors and choir performances will take place at Temple Sinai Oakland, 2808 Summit St, Oakland. 7:45 p.m. Free. www.oaklandsinai.org.

The Chabad Jewish Center of Novato will host a remembrance with speaker Yisroel Blumenstein of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Novato Oaks Inn, 215 Alameda Del Prado, Novato. 7:30 p.m. $10 suggested. www.jewishnovato.com/holocaust.

A poetry circle honoring Yom HaShoah will take place at Chochmat HaLev, 2215 Prince St., Berkeley. 4 p.m. Free. www.chochmat.org.

Monday, April 8

A reading of names followed by a service with a talk on the contributions of Jewish soldiers during World War II will take place at Peninsula Sinai Congregation, 499 Boothbay Ave, Foster City. 6:30 p.m. Free. www.peninsulasinai.org.

Tuesday, April 9

James E. Young, professor of English and Judaic Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst will discuss “The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning” in Warren Auditorium, Ives Hall, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 4 p.m. Free. www.sonoma.edu/holocaust.

The Santa Clara County Holocaust remembrance ceremony will focus on “turning points” in the stories of survivors. At County Government Center, board chambers, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose. 4 p.m. Free. [email protected]

Sunday, April 14

The Kol Hadash Holocaust remembrance will include a screening of “Harbour of Hope,” a documentary film about concentration camp survivors brought to Sweden in 1945. Author Joanna Bankier will also share her family experience relating to the film. At Albany Community Center, 1249 Marin Ave., Albany. 11 a.m. $10 donation for brunch. www.kolhadash.org.

B’nai B’rith will hold its annual commemoration, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name,” at the George Segal Holocaust Memorial at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will be a special lighting of candles by Holocaust survivors at noon. The George Segal Holocaust Memorial is at 100 34th Ave., S.F. Free. (415) 752-9304.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.