BY LEV POPLOW
PROVIDENCE – A short film produced by 14 University of Rhode Island students and musical performances were among the many highlights of this year’s moving Interfaith Yom Ha-Shoah Commemoration, held at Temple Emanu-El on May 1.
“The Fence Between Us,” produced by URI students in a film production class, mixes interviews with Rhode Island Holocaust survivors Albert Silverstein, Alice Eichenbaum and Jorge Gardos with vignettes of two girls who look like they could be sisters. The girls stand on opposite sides of a fence; despite their apparent sameness, one of them is free and the other trapped.
The film was introduced by two of the filmmakers, Katherine Fortey and Griffin Alix, who spoke to more than 500 people in the temple’s main sanctuary about the importance of not letting the Holocaust fade from memory. The filmmakers said they especially wanted to create something that would engage a younger audience.
Prior to the screening, a candlelit procession, with music by harpist Judie Tenenbaum, opened the evening.
After the film, the audience was treated to a performance of “Die Schonste Zeit des Lebensaa” (“The Most Beautiful Time of Life”) by pianist Judith Lynn Stillman and violinist Jorge Gardos.
This historically significant piece of music was recently discovered in the archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum by University of Michigan Prof. Patricia Hall. Composed by three prisoners, it had been performed by the Men’s Prisoner Orchestra to entertain Nazi officers.
The piece had not been heard since World War II until a performance in Michigan in late 2018. Originally arranged for the 14 instruments of the prisoner orchestra, it was rearranged by Stillman for the evening’s performance.
Later in the evening, Stillman teamed with soprano Anush Avatisyan to perform “When the Music Stopped: A Tapestry of Songs in Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.” Originally from Armenia, Avatisyan is now at Yale University. The Armenian genocide was an Ottoman Empire campaign of deportation and mass killing that led to the death of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917.
Stillman also composed and arranged the melody of the emotional “Wiegala,” which was performed by the HaZamir Teen Choir. Jewish poet Ilse Weber (1903-1944) wrote “Wiegala” a lullaby she sang to the children in her care, including her own son. When her husband was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, Weber volunteered to join him with their son so as not to break up the family. She and her son were sent to the gas chamber immediately upon arrival.
Second-generation Holocaust survivor Lilliane Birch presented the Never Again Award to the sponsors of the bill – now law – to require Holocaust and Genocide studies in Rhode Island schools: Sen. Gayle Goldin, Rep. Katherine Kazarian, Sen. Josh Miller and Former Rep. Aaron Regunberg.
Speaking on behalf of the four honorees, Goldin said, “Given the hate and bigotry that has become so common in public discourse today, it seems especially important to educate students about the incredible damage that hate and bigotry have caused.”
Cantor Brian Mayer, accompanied by Tenenbaum on harp, chanted the El Malei Rahamim memorial prayer as survivors and their children recited the names of relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Irving Westreich, who escaped the Nazis along with his parents, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Cantor Mayer and Stillman presented Rabbi Wayne Franklin, who is retiring from Temple Emanu-El in July, with a music box inscribed with the lyrics of the “Song of the Partisans.”
Father John Allard of Providence College gave the closing prayer.
LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant who writes for the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence. He can be reached at email@example.com.