2014 Yom Hashoah guest speaker believes “Life is here to live”

by | Apr 7, 2014 | Other News

Werner Reich

Werner Reich

Sunday, April 27, 6:45 pm
Ohef Sholom Temple

The Tidewater community’s solemn, annual observation of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Day of Remembrance, may be a bit lighter this year. A laugh, or two, could even erupt during the community-wide gathering.

This year’s speaker at the evening of prayer and remembrance, hosted by the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, is Holocaust survivor Werner Reich.

A resident of Long Island, Reich believes in the power of optimism. In presentations to more than 10,000 people a year, Reich splashes his positivity with a bit of humor in a fervent goal to inspire others to take action when they see injustices, and to never again allow a repetition of the indifference that permitted the atrocities of the Holocaust.

“Werner has a wonderful sense of humor,” says Wendy Auerbach, Yom Hashoah co-chair. “In his presentations, he has related that humor often played a part in his survival.”

Reich is a frequent guest speaker at schools and has tailored his presentation to engage his audiences and relate his experiences to contemporary issues. To that end, Reich shares his Holocaust survival story freely, relating his life as a teen in Yugoslavia, hiding from the Gestapo, his subsequent capture and life, as he knew it, for two years in a prison and four concentration camps.

In one of those camps, Auschwitz II , also known as the Birkenau extermination camp, Reich was among 89 boys chosen randomly from a group of 6,000 inmates by the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele. Those not chosen were gassed to death over the next few days, while Reich and his group were transferred to another camp. When the war ended, fewer than 40 of the 89 were still alive.

“I had a choice of either dying or being alive,” says Reich. “I am alive, but not in order to mourn. That’s not the purpose. Life is here to live, to be happy, to enjoy.”

The message Reich works diligently to deliver is that the reason the Holocaust occurred was not because of the Nazis, but because of the indifference of the bystanders. Bad things happen, he insists, when good people do nothing.

“To sum it up, I want students to be concerned with people around them. I want them to do little things that will make other people’s lives a bit easier,” Reich says.

“In the spirit of Tikkun Olam, I am trying to make this world a little bit better, just a small repair job. My suffering and that of thousands of others is only used as a tangible example of what happens when good people do nothing. But don’t feel sorry for me—I survived. Feel sorry for those who didn’t.”

In addition to Reich’s presentation, the event at Ohef Sholom will include songs, prayers, and a poignant candle lighting ceremony, which honors and remembers survivors, liberators, Righteous Gentiles, and those who perished in the Holocaust.

“Yom Hashoah, known worldwide as the international day of remembrance for the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, is a time where we can stand in solemnity with our neighbors and our children,” says Anne Fleder, Holocaust Commission chair. “Together we will carry the torch for a brighter tomorrow.”

The evening’s program also incorporates recognition of the efforts of Holocaust education, and students and teachers who demonstrate an understanding of the lessons of the past, and hope for the future. Winners of the annual Holocaust Commission’s Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competitions for area students will be honored, with selected literary pieces read aloud and a sampling of artwork displayed. Teachers’ awards for excellence in Holocaust education will be announced, as well.

Elyse Cardon, Yom Hashoah co-chair, believes the evening will be special for all who attend.

“Sharing in our Yom Hashoah community- wide event, we have the honor of standing side by side, hand in hand, with Holocaust survivors, liberators, Righteous Gentiles, educators, and of course our younger generation,” Cardon says.

“We literally get to look the past, present and future right in the eye and collectively say, ‘Hineni!’ We remember and are (still) here!”

Observation of Yom Hashoah continues on Monday, April 28, when The Reading of the Names takes place, 10 am–4 pm at the Simon Family JCC. Sponsored by the Beth El Men’s Club, volunteers from the community continuously read aloud names of Holocaust victims, honoring their memories and the tragic loss of lives.

Yom Hashoah observances are free and open to the community. The community is also invited to attend a larger exhibition of student art winners in the Elie Wiesel competition at the Old Dominion University Virginia Beach campus May 19– June 6. All 2014 writing and visual art entries winners will be posted on the Holocaust Commission website following Yom Hashoah.

For more information about Yom Hashoah or the Holocaust Commission, visit www.holocaustcommission.org, call 757-965-6125, or email info@holocaustcommission.org.

by Laine Mednick Rutherford