The Wilkins Theater at Kean University has graciously become home to the annual Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest Holocaust remembrance event. Kean boasts the oldest formal Holocaust studies program in the country, dating back to 1986, according to University President Dr. Dawood Farahi. So it makes perfect sense that Kean continues to host this event, which annually fills the Wilkins Theater to capacity.
Farahi opened by asking the audience to inform others and learn from the horrors and mistakes of the Holocaust, to go to Yad Vashem and to never forgive those who deny the Holocaust.
Robert Lichtman, chief Jewish learning officer for United Jewish Communities of Greater MetroWest, implored everyone to learn responsibility, thus creating the power to understand.
The traditional candle-lighting ceremony included survivors, generational descendants, the son of a righteous rescuer, WW2 veterans who were liberators, Holocaust educators and those who work to heal the world through memory.
Robert Bielski gave a riveting presentation about the audacious and courageous Bielski brothers’ partisan group. Bielski related stories and circumstances about how the group, under the capable and tenacious leadership of his father, Tuvia, survived the war and the continued incursion threat of the Nazis in Belarus and Poland.
Bielski’s father, uncles and their “troops” protected the community relentlessly and cared for them completely. Anyone who has seen the movie or the TV series “Defiance” will have recognized the events and realities of Bielski’s description of his father’s partisan community in the forest near the Polish-Russian borders. There were merchants, manufacturers, educators, smiths, shoemakers and others, along with religious communal life. It was the ultimate hidden shtetl, and over 1200 partisans in this group were liberated in July of 1944.
Included in the group was teenager Ann Monka, now 88. In the film shown during Bielski’s talk, Monka described the feeling of security, safety and confidence they had in the Bielski brothers, and that the Bielskis never let them down. While they might sometimes have slept on a hardwood bench at night, they were safe, warm, clothed and always had food. From the podium, Monka mentioned that they had stayed in touch, and she was blessed to have attended the bar mitzvah of Robert Bielski’s son.
The Bielski brothers and their leaders created an improbable array of conduits to the resources they needed, including arms and weapons, whether in camp or on the move. Their resistance saved more than a thousand Jews from the loss and destruction of their hometowns in and near Nowogródek and Lida in Poland.
Bielski noted that the resistance shown by his father and uncles served as a talisman of inspiration for many others to form resistance and rescue groups elsewhere. Thousands were saved and rescued by these groups, despite the losses. Bielski noted that many thousands of Jews are alive today because of the brave resistance of people like his father and uncles. The presence of their additional thousands of descendants to this day is certainly a living testimony to that truth.
The Holocaust Commemoration event at Kean is sponsored and presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, and coordinated by Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest. For information or to get involved, contact https://www.jfedgmw.org/holocaust.
By Ellie Wolf