As antisemitism and Holocaust denial grow in the United States, Frieda Tenenbaum Grayzel warned Sunday of the continued threat posed by the sort of bigotry that helped Nazi Germany murder millions of Jews during World War II.
Speaking during a virtual Community Holocaust Commemoration of Yom HaShoah, the 87-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp warned that the Holocaust must not be forgotten.
The violence of those years claimed the lives of family members, friends, and neighbors, she said, and she fought to survive — avoiding death in gas chambers, forced marches, and from starvation.
“How could this have happened? Six million of our Jewish people, among us one and a half million children, and so many other peoples tortured and murdered,” Grayzel said. “How could this have happened? It started with prejudices and lies by leaders and their loyal followers.”
The theme of Sunday’s commemoration — “At a Crossroads: Preserving the Truth” — focused on bearing witness to testimony of what happened during the Holocaust, according to organizers. They also sought to repudiate the current growing spread of lies and distortions about the bloody history of those years.
Rick Mann, the chairman of this year’s commemoration, said those lies risk trivializing the Holocaust — including false comparisons of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates to Nazi oppression.
The most recent and egregious example, he said, was Russia’s unfounded pretext for invading Ukraine and “denazify” it.
“It is more important than ever for each of us to find the courage to speak out when we hear this painful history distorted or denied,” Mann said in his remarks.
People should look to survivors like Grayzel “to see what this courage looks like, and try to emulate it,” he said.
The event, which was broadcast on Youtube, including moving tributes to survivors who have died, including Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, whose family was decimated by Nazi violence. Arbeiter, 96, who died in October, had spent decades working to ensure the Holocaust did not fade from memory.
“There is never enough remembering,” he once told the Globe.
Sunday’s commemoration was sponsored by several organizations, including Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston; Combined Jewish Philanthropies; the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston; Facing History and Ourselves; and the United Way.
Ambassador Meron Reuben, the consul general of Israel to New England, said younger generations must be taught about the causes of hate and antisemitism, but more must also be done to ensure young people are educated about the facts of the Holocaust and the deaths of 6 million Jews.
“With the passage of time, a new war on European soil, and in the face of a rising tide of antisemitism, its all the more important to remember the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust,” he said during the event.
Nicole Menzenbach, consul general of Germany to New England, said Germany “does not forget the horrors” that were perpetrated against innocent victims.
“We are pledged to fighting those who would deny the unspeakable crimes committed during the Shoah,” Menzenbach said.
She cited Arbeiter’s example, and said people must be vigilant “in making sure that the truth be told.
US Army Colonel Cranston “Chan” Rogers, who was among those who liberated the Dachau concentration camp, said many veterans were witness to the Holocaust and they must speak up about what they saw.
“There are people in the world that deny the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust,” Rogers said. “I want to tell those people that I was there.”
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu warned that local incidents of antisemitism have increased in recent years. In Massachusetts last year alone, the Anti-Defamation League reported a rise in the number of reported antisemitic vandalism, harassment, and assaults.
Last year, 108 antisemitic incidents were reported, up from 73 the previous year, the organization said. Among those 2021 incidents were the stabbing of a rabbi in Brighton and the Duxbury High School football team’s use of Holocaust-related phrases.
Nationwide, the ADL reported more than 2,700 antisemitic incidents last year — the most since it began tracking those reports in 1979.
“We must remain vigilant and committed to standing united against the forces of misinformation and intolerance,” Wu said Sunday.
Grayzel, who spoke at length about her experiences during the Holocaust, was just 5 years old when Nazi Germany’s forces invaded her homeland of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.
Grayzel, who now lives in Cambridge, described how her family, including her father, mother, and baby sister — who was born just days after the invasion — fled their hometown of Tomaszów Mazowiecki in central Poland for Warsaw.
They endured with no food, water, or electricity as Nazi forces attacked Poland.
“The images on TV and Internet of the bombed cities in Ukraine give you an idea of what was happening in Warsaw,” Grayzel said.
Her family returned home, only to find new restrictions imposed by the Nazis that stripped Jews of their human rights, she said. Those rules were enforced by random shootings, brutality, and humiliations.
After the Nazis took control of Poland, her family was among those herded into a ghetto in April 1940. Some Jews, like her father, who had skills useful to the Germans labored in workshops, she said.
By the end of 1942, 95 percent of the ghetto was emptied, and the people put to death at the Treblinka Extermination Camp. Grayzel and her immediate family were among those who had to sort the belongings of the murdered people, and shipped them to Germany.
Thousands of people, including three of Grayzel’s grandparents and other family members, were killed at Treblinka, she said.
The following April, she and her surviving family were shipped in cattle cars to the Blizyn labor camp., where men and women were separated. Those who violated the rules were hung, or suffered naked public beatings.
That November, her 4-year-old sister was ripped from her mother’s arms, she said.
“My mother fought to go on the truck with her, and was savagely beaten,” Grayzel said. “All the children were sent to a nearby forest and shot, as we found out years later from a friend who was among those tasked with digging their grave.”
Soon after, her father and uncle were shipped away. Then in July 1944 they were shipped again by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. She spent seven months facing impossible odds -- starvation, avoiding the gas chambers and death marches.
The Germans eventually abandoned the camp, and on Jan. 27, 1945, Russian soldiers liberated it.
“They were incredibly moved by what they found,’ she said. “January 27th later became my second birthday, my ‘rebirth’ day. "
She, along with her mother, aunt, and cousin, made their way back home. Her father and uncle also arrived later that year. It would still take time to finally reach the US, including four years in displaced persons camps in Europe, she said.
Grayzel credited her mother’s strength for her own survival.
“How I survived the seven months till liberation is impossible to comprehend,” Grayzel said. “But my mother and her courage, grit, ingenuity, and devotion was one huge factor, and incredible luck.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.