PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The message of Yom HaShoah goes beyond just remembering those killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, says the son of a man who lived through the death camps.
“The lessons of the Holocaust is that politics of fear and hate, which were used for political purposes by the Nazi regime, are still used today by politicians who would have you fear and hate others to get your vote,” said Sheldon Katz of East Peoria.
His father, Manferd Katz, was in his early teens when the Nazis forced his family to move from their small village in southern Germany to the Riga Ghetto in Latvia. He was taken to the first of several concentration camps.
He survived the war but he never saw his mother and father, his younger sister and other aunts and uncles. In all, nearly a dozen members of his family died.
And it’s for them that Sheldon and his wife, Sue Katz, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Peoria, said events such as Yom HaShoah are so important.
This year’s event
This year’s event, which is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Peoria, will begin at 7 p.m. Monday at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, 222 SW Washington St. Admission is free and the event is open to the public. Tickets are available by calling the museum.
In the past, the event has featured survivors of the death camps but as time goes on, they are becoming less able to travel. Instead, the focus has shifted to the next generation, the children and the grandchildren of survivors who continue to tell their stories.
Yom HaShoah is Hebrew for “Holocaust Remembrance Day,” and this year’s event will feature Vera Emmons, who will share previously recorded interviews with her mother, Gerda Northmann Luner, who survived the war.
The videos are from the Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit organization at the University of Southern California that is dedicated to recording stories told by survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Gerda. who died in 1999, was born in Germany. She and her sister were sent to a foster family in Amsterdam to save them from the Nazis. Eventually, she, her sister, their foster family, and her parents were all deported by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps including Auschwitz.
Sue Katz said there are nearly a dozen people whose parents or grandparents survived the Holocaust. One of those is Alan Gordon, whose grandmother, grandfather and aunt were murdered by the Nazis when they occupied their small Polish village of Ivye in 1942.
“In 1941, the Nazis made it to my dad’s hometown and occupied it. The first thing they did, on Tisha B’Av (a date in the Jewish calendar that is traditionally known for calamities), they took 225 men, leaders of the town, and people who had some standing including my uncle whom I was named for, out into the forest and shot them,” Gordon said. “Later, in 1942, they sent people off to the death camps but they had too many Jews left so on May 25, 1942, they took the remaining Jews out into the forest and shot them dead.”
Among those sent to the gas chambers were his father’s first wife and an infant son; relatives Gordon, who lives in Peoria, didn’t know he had until his early 20s.
His father survived the war as did his two uncles, one of whom fought the Nazis with the Bielski partisans. Two came to the United States while the other immigrated to Israel where two of Gordon’s aunts had gone in the mid-1930s.
Growing up in Texas, Gordon said he was close to his mother’s side of the family. That his father’s side that wasn’t there just wasn’t brought up.
“I didn’t think about having grandparents on my father’s side. As a child, you don’t make the connection between reality and the words being used to discuss the situation with you. It was just that they weren’t there and you never really asked why,” he said.
Sheldon Katz said his father, who is now 95 and living in Jacksonville, Fla., was only a teenager when he was sent to his first concentration camp.
“For years, I made the mistake of calling them forced labor camps,” Sheldon Katz said. “My father corrected me. They were all death camps.”
Manferd was shipped from camp to camp over several years. Sheldon said his father, at times, didn’t believe he would survive but would wake up each morning with the defiant thought — “Not Today.”
It’s that resilience and that determination that also drives Sheldon to speak for his father who used to travel around and talk to school children about his experiences. Remembering, Sheldon Katz said, has several meanings.
“First personally, it was for family members I never met,” Sheldon Katz said. “And it’s for my father every time I think about what he went through. But it’s also for the principle that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. It’s happening as we speak.”
It’s also to remember the human spirit and the survivors, each of whom, Sheldon Katz said, has an extraordinary story.
“Whether they were hidden as a child or survived a camp, their stories are extraordinary,” he said.
Both Gordon and the Katzs hope that remembering what horror of what happened could help to prevent another version in the future.