Respect and hope mark community’s 2016 Yom Hashoah Holocaust Day of Remembrance gathering

by | May 20, 2016 | Other News

Elizabeth Hughes, granddaughter of four survivors, lights a candle in memory of children who perished.

Elizabeth Hughes, granddaughter of four survivors, lights a candle in memory of children who perished.

From Wendy Juren Auerbach’s heartfelt welcome on behalf of the Holocaust Commission of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater to Jay Klebanoff’s respectful closing remarks as UJFT president, Tidewater’s 2016 Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Day of Remembrance was a meaningful event filled with honor, hope, sadness and awareness.

Held in the sanctuary of Norfolk’s Temple Israel, the program included a recognition ceremony for student winners in the Holocaust Commission’s 2016 Elie Wiesel Writing and Visual Arts Competitions, and special teacher awards for Excellence in Holocaust Education. Student art winners and judges’ selection pieces were displayed in the synagogue’s lobby, while winning written entries were distributed with the evening’s program.

Jeannie Opdyke Smith, the evening’s guest speaker, captivated the audience of 500 through her expressive portrayal of the life of her mother, Polish rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke. As a young woman in Poland, Irene saved Jewish lives through her brave actions during the Holocaust.

Smith was chosen to speak after careful consideration by the chairs of this year’s Yom Hashoah event, Rachel Abrams, Elyse Cardon and Rachael Feigenbaum, who had heard her speak at last summer’s Holocaust Commission Educators’ Conference.

“One might say we went out on a limb by bringing in Jeannie for Yom Hashoah this year, as she was not a Holocaust survivor, but I feel strongly there are many valuable lessons to be learned, looking at other angles and all perspectives,” says Cardon.

“Jeannie Smith’s rendition of her mother’s heroic story, imitating her Polish accent and painting each detail with all-encompassing imagery, was so extraordinary, it felt like Irene was literally in our presence,” she says. “Jeannie’s heartfelt messages of the power-of-one, and how all things are possible with love and forgiveness, are powerful and inspirational words to live by—while we never forget.”

Toward the end of her presentation, Smith held back tears as she spoke about the great care her parents received from the Jewish community and Federation in California at the end of their lives, and of her admiration and respect for the Jewish people.

“As a Christian, I am so grateful for the Jewish community,” Smith said. “I want you to know that there are a lot people standing up with you to make sure that something like this [the Holocaust] never happens again.”

The lighting of memorial candles followed Smith’s talk. Holocaust survivors, liberators, Righteous Gentiles—or those lighting in their place—were handed long tapers by Holocaust Commission volunteers. As names were read, those in the sanctuary were silent, while those who had attended prior commemorations noticed the dwindling number of candles on the table. Organizers say that this is a motivation to continue to hold the event— so the stories and the survivors, and their rescuers are never forgotten.

Cantor Wendi Fried of Congregation Beth El sang a haunting and beautiful rendition of the K’el Maley Rachamin memorial prayer, followed by the Mourner’s Kaddish. Guests departed quietly, with some lingering to view the student artwork and others waiting to have Smith sign copies of her mother’s memoir, In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer.

Herbie Brewer asked Smith to sign two copies, one to give to his wife and one to his sister. Brewer felt the story Smith shared was not only remarkable, but was important for people to hear. “We were honored to have her here,” Brewer said. What she said needed to be said, and needs to be said over and over again.”

Visit and “Like” the new Holocaust Commission Facebook page to see photos from Yom Hashoah:

by Laine M. Rutherford