In Santa Fe, a Holocaust reminder

May 3, 2019

More than 150 voices echoed through the state Capitol Rotunda on Thursday night, singing a Hebrew prayer for peace, “Oseh Shalom,” during an observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The “New Mexico Remembers” event featured Jewish prayers, speeches from local and state politicians, and a powerful story from Holocaust survivor Andy Holten, 81.

But the evening was not solely a historical reflection more than 70 years since the end of WWII. In the midst of an international spike of anti-Semitic violence and intolerance, the gathering aimed to serve as a reminder “to never forget,” organizers said, mourning not only past atrocities, but recent tragedies as well.

“We can’t afford to be complacent and live in a bubble that denies this is an issue [today],” said Zachary Benjamin, executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico. “The dangers of prejudice, and especially of anti-Semitisim, are very real, and if we don’t remain vigilant and ensure we remember the lessons of history, we might just make those same mistakes again.”

Israeli researchers reported earlier this week that violent attacks against Jews are at the highest level in decades. Among them were the late-October shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 worshippers and Saturday’s attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego, where one woman was killed and three other people were injured.

According to Tel Aviv University researchers, 400 cases of anti-Semitic attacks were reported worldwide last year. Many took place in the United States in settings Benjamin said “should be safe” — mainly Jewish places of worship.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said that while these hateful acts can feel distant from Santa Fe, he argued that anti-Semitism and other types of prejudice are just as real here as anywhere else. He described the separation of migrant families on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a recently discovered anti-Semitic graffiti at the Railyard, as examples.

“We are called upon to remember the past, but be present now,” emphasized Webber. “Speak up, stand united and take action against hatred in all its forms — That’s how we remember the Holocaust.”

Holten, the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor, agreed. As a substitute teacher in Albuquerque, he said part of his life’s mission is to encourage kids to practice tolerance. Most of all, he said, he wants to make sure his parents’ deaths were not in vain.

When he was 5, Holten said, his parents made the decision to put him into hiding. They also tried to hide but were found and later killed at Auschwitz.

Fighting back tears, Holten said their sacrifice is “what saved my life.” Imagining how difficult that “heroic” decision must have been, and envisioning his 30-year-old mother and 34-year-old father standing on their feet for 2½ days while being transported via cattle car to Auschwitz — “That’s what the Holocaust means to me,” he said.

“That [grief] never goes away,” he added, thinking of his own two children and grandchildren. “I still feel for my parents, what they must have felt to give me away. … It would have been extremely painful.”

Edie Goldberg Blangrund, another Holocaust survivor at the even, said it’s vital to “not become complacent” about stories like these. Blangrund, who was reunited with her parents after the war, said she vividly remembers a wish her father said to her as he was dying in 2010: “Don’t let them forget.”

For Rabbi Berel Levertov of the Santa Fe Jewish Center Chabad, looking around the gathering Thursday night, he said he felt certain the Holocaust will not be forgotten and that perhaps today’s anti-Semitic tragedies could actually strengthen Jewish faith.

“We see more now than ever the resilience of the Jewish people, the strength of the Jewish people,” he said. “We come together to strengthen each other and do goodness and kindness. … A little light shines away a lot of darkness.”