A virtual commemoration of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was presented Sunday to recognize Southern European and North African communities that were nearly eradicated during the Nazis’ mass killing spree.
The 11 a.m. commemoration, presented by Holocaust Museum LA, included a keynote speech by UCLA anthropology professor Aomar Boum and remarks by Albert Rosa, a 96-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz death camp and Dachau concentration camp who was born in Greece.
Speaking forcefully with an energy that belied his age, Rosa recounted the story of his ancestors, and how they escaped persecution from the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition before his father settled in Greece and was making a good living before the Nazis came and “everything changed”
His family was forced to the infamous death camp at Auschwitz, several hundred miles away in Poland.
“By the time we arrived there most of the people had already died on the train,” Rosa said.
Once at the camp, Rosa said “I saw my brother hang, I saw my sister beat to death.”
He added that Jews from his part of the world faced discrimination even from fellow Jews, with some saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish? You’re not really a Jew.
“To be a Sephardic Jew was to have everything against us,” he said. “Many people don’t know we exist. … The world should know about Sephardic Jews … we also suffered.”
Following the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, Rosa fought in the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization in Palestine. He came to the United States in 1949.
Sunday’s presentation also included remarks from the consuls general of Israel, Poland and Germany, the consul-general of Greece in Los Angeles and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“For decades the museum and this community have helped survivors tell their story,” said Garcetti, who also lamented that “today, more than 70 years on (from the Holocaust), we have not healed from the scourge of hatred, we’re not free from injustice.”
Beth Kean, CEO of Holocaust Museum LA, said the Holocaust “is usually understood as an Eastern European story and through a Eurocentric lens. The Sephardic communities in southern Europe and Northern Africa were nearly eradicated and forever changed due to the brutality of the Nazis.
“It’s not as well known that those communities were victims of the Holocaust so we are paying tribute to them. The culture and language of those communities, like Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish Romance language derived from old Spanish, almost completely disappeared.”
Kean said “96% of the Jews in Greece” died in the Holocaust, most at Auschwitz.
“Jews had lived in Greece since the fourth century B.C. and the Greek Jewish community is considered one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in Europe,” Kean told City News Service.
Boum spoke about the importance of learning more about how the Holocaust impacted North Africa and Southern Europe to complete our understanding of how truly vast and horrific the event was, adding that the experience of North African Jewry has been underrepresented in museums and history books.
“North African Jews in general felt that their experience during the war was not part of the story of the Holocaust,” he said.
Boum describes himself as “a socio-cultural anthropologist with a historical bent concerned with the social and cultural representation of and political discourse about religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Much of his work has focused on the anthropology and history of Jewish-Muslim relations from the 19th century to the present. He has also written on such as topics as Moroccan Jewish historiography, Islamic archives and manuscripts, education, music, youth, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, migration and sports.
The commemoration also included musical performances.
Officials said the tradition is more important now than ever. “As a community we have never been more challenged. Anti-Semitism is on the rise,” said Michelle Gold, chair of the museum’s board.
Under a 1953 law passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, is annually observed on the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which began at sundown Wednesday and ended at sundown Thursday.
President Joe Biden issued a proclamation April 4 declaring April 4-11 as “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust,” and called upon Americans “to observe this week and pause to remember victims and survivors of the Holocaust.”
“We honor the memories of precious lives lost, contemplate the incomprehensible wound to our humanity, mourn for the communities broken and scattered, and embrace those who survived the Holocaust, some of whom are still with us today, continuing to embody extraordinary resilience after all these years,” Biden wrote in his proclamation.
“Having borne witness to the depths of evil, these survivors remind us of the vital refrain: `Never Again.’ The history of the Holocaust is forever seared into the history of humankind, and it is the shared responsibility of all people to ensure that the horrors of the Shoah can never be erased from our collective memory.”