Amid tumultuous recent days in Southern California, Holocaust survivors share past horrors, urge education to fight hatred
By Joshua Rosen, contributing reporter
“I couldn’t ask my parents for food,” said Yetta Kane, 87, to a crowd of more than 250 people during Sunday’s Holocaust Remembrance at Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.
“I knew they didn’t have any.”
Kane — surrounded by friends, family and the descendants of other Long Beach residents who survived the Holocaust — spoke, performed music and poetry, and lit candles in remembrance of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis before and during World War II at a Yom HaShoah observance.
“I have been part of the human beings that survived hell. And people ask ‘how did she survive,’ ” said Kane. “We were on the run. We were without food, without shelter. The pain of being hungry cannot be explained. Not when you’re … hungry day in and day out.”
“The reason we survived,” she added, “was because my parents were wonderful, loving people.”
The service took place during a jolting recent period in Southern California that included the synagogue shooting in Poway that left a woman dead and a rabbi among the wounded, rumblings of a possible white nationalist rally in Long Beach — and the arrest of a man in a suspected plot to ignite a bomb at that event. In the end, the rally did not happen at Bluff Park, but a counter-protest did, watched closely by Long Beach police officers.
In response to growing recent concern, officials at the Alpert Jewish Community Center worked with Long Beach police to increase security at Sunday’s services. Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna was also among Sunday’s speakers.
Studies show hate crimes are increasing in the state and nation, including Long Beach. The number of hate groups in the United States, particularly white nationalist groups, rose in 2018 for the fourth consecutive year, according to a report released in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights watchdog group.
Other recent anti-Semitic incidents in Southern California have sparked headlines, including a social media post featuring students partying around red Solo cups arranged in a swastika formation and a video that showed youth hockey players making racially insensitive remarks.
The first candle at Sunday’s services was lit by the family of Gerda Seifer, 91 and in a wheelchair, who was born in Przemysl, Poland in 1927. On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi forces began their occupation of her home.
“I’ll speak to whoever asks me,” spoke Seifer. “I spoke to 800 kids two weeks ago in Cypress. I spoke to about 60 soldiers three days ago. To me it’s very, very important. I speak to the young people, and I give them the same message you heard today, ‘treat everyone the way you want to be treated, appreciate freedom in America.’”
Kane was a child when the Nazis invaded her hometown of Myadel.
“I was 8 years old when hatred came out with its ugly head,” explained Kane. “My first introduction was when a Jewish man, walking back from temple — I still remember his name, Chaim Minkis. I was playing with a little girl in front of my house three doors away. I was young, blonde, skinny, blue eyes… As the man … walks by, the little girl, my neighbor said “Zide” in polish, which means Jew. Without a blink of his eye, (a German soldier) pulled out a revolver and shot him dead. That was my introduction to the Nazis.”
Those horrors were just beginning for Kane. In the days that followed, more than 30 community leaders were targeted by the Nazis. Soldiers took them out of the city on trucks to a ravine and made them dig their own graves — then shot them, she said.
Kane reflected that her granddaughter is only a year older now then she was when the Nazis arrived in her community. Kane’s family had the choice to escape to Siberia or to Uzbekistan, she said. At the time, Kane’s uncle remarked that “they couldn’t catch malaria in Siberia.”
In 1949, Kane’s family was thankfully able to escape to Los Angeles, and she settled in Long Beach with her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor.
The survivors in attendance were adamant that education is the most vital method to fight the tide of hatred. To this end, the service included awards in a creative writing contest for middle school and high school students.
A poem submitted by student Ester Fettman aptly captured that tone:
“I’m honored to have connected with you;
Because of the pain you went through I am here;
Because you didn’t give up, I hope I never will.”
Some of Sunday’s speakers vowed to share their message with others for the rest of their lives.
“I will speak here for five hours,” said Kane. “I cannot cover the pain, the scars that I have within my soul.”