Judy Baron sat in the front row of a Holocaust memorial service this week, a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps during World War II who sees frighteningly familiar signs today.
When Baron watches the news, such as the recent San Diego synagogue shooting, she sometimes gets flashbacks to her youth in Hungary when Nazi ideology was taking root. Particularly jarring was the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Va., with demonstrators holding torches and spewing anti-Semitic slogans.
“That’s exactly how it was in the Nazi era, these young people marching in the street and saying things like ‘Jews don’t belong here,’ ” said Baron, 90. “You know what happened in World War II. Six million Jews were killed. People should pay attention to what’s happening.”
Baron was among about 10 Holocaust survivors attending the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day service at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka on Thursday night. It was one of countless solemn events across the globe to honor the memory of Jews systematically killed by the Nazi regime and to tell the world “never again.”
Candles were lit in their memory. Shofars, or rams’ horns, sounded. Prayers were said. And relatives of those who died, and those who survived, shared poignant stories of their loved ones.
The memories of the past colored tragedies of the present, as Jews and Jewish institutions continue to be targets of extremists.
“You cannot become numb to what is not normal,” Rabbi David Locketz told a crowd of about 650 people.
The ceremony comes as knowledge of the Holocaust fades in the United States and Europe. A 2018 survey found that more than one in 10 people in the United States haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure what it is. Among millennials, young adults in their 20s and 30s, the figure is more than one in five.
Likewise the sheer magnitude of the killings is being lost to memory. While 6 million Jews were systematically killed across Europe, a third of U.S. respondents thought 2 million or fewer were killed, as did 41% of millennials, according to the survey of 1,350 American adults by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
On a positive note, the vast majority of respondents — 93% — said they thought Holocaust education was important.
To that end, the Leo Weiss Courage to Teach Award was given to City Academy, a St. Paul charter school, which has brought a group of students to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. every year since 2001. The award is in memory of Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and longtime educator.
The City Academy students participated in a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, which also sponsored the commemoration.
“Students might hear the word ‘Holocaust’ but might not know exactly what it means,” said Michael Nguyen, a board member at City Academy, which offers a class called Genocide. “But taking the class, and then going to the museum, connects it to the real world.”
This connection to the real world was particularly strong for the Minnesotans sharing their family stories of the Holocaust at Thursday’s memorial service. Gloria Fredkove told of her mother, Eva Bass, who fled occupied Italy with her two children, no food, no place to sleep, and trekked about 38 miles to get to Allied safety.
“That baby was me,” she said, choking up.
Susan Miller, the daughter of Baron, also shared the story of her mother’s journey, which involved being sent in a boxcar with her parents and sisters to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. They were met by the smell of burned bodies from its crematorium, she said, and forced into hard labor. Baron lost her entire family. But she was liberated in 1945 by British troops and sent for medical care to Sweden, where she met her future husband, Fred.
These stories can be told now, but the ranks of survivors and even their immediate descendants are dwindling. To help fill that gap, the Jewish Community Relations Council offers a Tolerance Minnesota program that includes classroom education materials, a Holocaust speakers bureau and a traveling photo exhibit.
Baron still doesn’t understand why Jews continue to be targets of hate crimes, 70 years after her liberation. She said, “It’s frightening.”