They moved slowly, carrying the years and the memories, and took their seats in the front rows, in chairs marked “Survivors and Liberators.”
There were about two dozen in total. Their numbers shrink each year, for it has now been 70 years since Allied forces liberated the concentration camps in World War II.
So a Sunday morning ceremony at Faneuil Hall to commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, had a theme of not just bearing witness to the past, but creating living memories for future generations to carry forward.
“In a few years, there won’t be any survivors left to give their testimony,” said Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which sponsored the event. “It’s impossible to believe that human beings did the kinds of things human beings did during the Holocaust, and so we need to document it and bear witness so that every person who hears their stories, every young person in that audience, will become a witness.”
The event featured several speeches, including brief remarks from Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The most emotional moments came with the words of Max Michelson, who was 15 when the Nazis invaded his native Riga, Latvia, in 1941.
“Overnight, we were no longer human. We were humiliated, tortured, and murdered at will,” he said, to a hushed audience.
Michelson lost his entire family and managed to survive three concentration camps before being liberated in Germany in 1945 and moving to the United States two years later. He now lives in Newton.
The keynote speaker was David Eisenhower, a historian and scholar who is the grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Forces during the liberation.
Eisenhower praised his grandfather for bringing the media with him to Buchenwald to create a permanent record of the atrocity, and read a quote from him written on that day 70 years ago.
“The things I saw beggar description. . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick,” General Eisenhower said on April 12, 1945, at Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany, a subcamp of Buchenwald. “I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence if ever in the future there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”
As we continue to lose those with a direct connection to the Holocaust, David Eisenhower said, it was important to learn from them, attempt to understand what happened, and “resolve to act in the face of evil.”
Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, officially begins at sundown April 15 but was recognized in local ceremonies during the weekend. Across the city at Temple Israel on Sunday afternoon, the sun cast a platinum light on the Holy Ark as survivors and relatives solemnly lighted six candles, each representing 1 million Jews killed.
Rabbi Ronne Friedman told the crowd of more than 200, diverse in age and race, that April is a time for remembering lost lives. The month brings not only the anniversary of the liberation, he said, but also of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and of the Armenian Genocide a century ago.
“Each tragedy is distinct, and at the same time each is reminiscent of the others,” he said.
As Michael Gruenbaum, a Brookline resident who survived the Terezin concentration camp in what is now Czech Republic, struck a long match and extended it toward the first white pillar at Temple Israel, he took his grandson’s hand, and together they kindled the flame. “It’s important to let the next generation and the second and the third generation know about what happened,” said Gruenbaum, 84, in an interview after the event. “When you light the candle, you think about all your friends and your relatives who perished and you will never see again.”
Gruenbaum has cowritten a forthcoming book, titled “Somewhere There is Still a Sun,” about his 2½ years in Terezin, from age 11 to 14, with his mother and sister.
“It was a sort of a juxtaposition of horror and childhood innocence,” he said of the camp.
“The worst part was we had the fear of what we called the transports”— trains that carried inmates east, he said. “Nobody knew what east meant, and it turned out it was extermination.”
Though his grandparents and his aunts died in the camps, Gruenbaum’s mother was able to keep their family of three alive.
“Most of the kids I lived with did not have that interference, and they went to Auschwitz and to the gas chambers,” he said.
After the morning ceremony inside Faneuil Hall, the event moved a short distance to the New England Holocaust Memorial, which was dedicated 20 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation.
One of the first to arrive at the towering monument was Stephen B. Ross, who founded the memorial. Ross, 89, who survived 10 concentration camps, was led to his seat, gently, by his son, Mike Ross, a former Boston city councilor who is now an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe.
Following a short ceremony at the memorial, which was marked by a pro-Palestinian protester who shouted loudly from across the street, many broke into smaller groups to continue discussing the horrors of the Holocaust, and positive things that have come out of it.
Cranston R. “Chan” Rogers, a 90-year-old veteran from Medway, was seated in a wheelchair wearing his Army uniform. Rogers was a sergeant in the 45th Infantry Division when it liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945. He remembers finding about 100 train boxcars full of dead bodies, and said those that survived were so emaciated they were barely holding on.
“It’s unbelievable what the Germans did. They tried to exterminate the Jewish race,” said Rogers, who retired as a colonel. He also raised eight children, got a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and helped build the Big Dig.
“You can’t dwell too much on these things, but it’s a story that has to be told so that people will never forget.”