By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — In a world where some arguments never seem to end and ethnic feuds are timed in centuries, it’s easy to get the impression that life never gets any better.
Paul Breines, a retired Boston College history professor, brought a somewhat-brighter perspective to last night’s Holocaust Center Boston North’s Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust memorial, as the featured speaker at Peabody High School.
Born in Queens, N.Y., Breines could have been anyone from anywhere when his family moved to upscale 1950s Scarsdale. In other words, with his nondescript last name and his mannerism — “I didn’t talk so much with my hands,” he said with a laugh — for a while, he didn’t have to advertise his Jewish heritage.
“I had my time as a bystander.”
But his attitude changed after a classmate was turned away from a girlfriend’s “coming out” ball at the Scarsdale Country Club because he was Jewish. It was an era “not that far away from the Holocaust,” Breines recalled. Moreover, he began to see a connection between what happened to his friend and what was happening in states like Mississippi and Alabama, where so-called Freedom Riders had appeared in efforts to end the segregation of black people.
It was an easy connection for Breines to make. He had studied “obsessively” the photos promoted by radical groups, pictures of blacks lynched by mobs of triumphant whites. Eyeing the victims, he decided, “I am with them. I can’t let that happen again.”
Eventually, all this moved him to become a Freedom Rider, joining a movement whose members practiced nonviolence but were targeted and even killed in response.
“I guess I was an ‘upstander’ in 1961,” he told the gathering, using the word coined by Holocaust Center co-founder and survivor the late Sonia Weitz, “along with a whole bunch of others who couldn’t stand the way Negroes were treated in the United States.”
Efforts at nonviolent resistance to “Jim Crow,” the Southern discrimination against blacks, eventually sent Breines to a Mississippi penitentiary for a month.
Last night, he noted that the Holocaust Center has awarded 17 Upstander Awards to local students, with top honors going to Joanna Ambeliotes of Peabody High and Maise Miller of Marblehead High. In each case, the youngsters had stood up to bullies, usually cyberbullies. And that was appropriate, Breines said.
The Nazis who murdered Jews and others by the millions were bullies, he said. The Southern racists who persecuted blacks were bullies.
On the other hand, he said, the world was different in those days. “Jews were very much on the margins in 1961. ... This event could not have happened in 1961.” For one, the term Holocaust hadn’t come into common usage. It’s amusing but telling that Breines felt enough the outsider that in prison he was snapped awake hearing someone say, “All Jews go down for incarceration.”
The phrase invoked frightening visions of the Holocaust. But, no, a companion told him. He’d heard it wrong. “He said all yous go down for incarceration.”
Last night’s event featured a salute to Weitz from Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who recalled being a 16-year-old student “mesmerized” by her stories of surviving the death camps as a teen. The Gordon College Women’s Choir, led each year by Faith Luethe, provided uplifting music as the dwindling number of survivors, carrying candles, filed in.
“Throughout the world,” said Patricia Meservey, president of Salem State University, “Jew and non-Jew alike will be gathering to honor the victims of the Nazi atrocities. ... By coming together, we are fulfilling the sacred promise that we will never forget.”
Faced with intolerance and hate, she added, “We must summon the courage to speak up.”
“It means a lot to me,” Breines said, “to be reminded again, against the backdrop of the Holocaust ... to feel in 2013 completely safe as a Jew in America.” And it is the participation of non-Jews in places like the Holocaust Center that brings such hope, he indicated.
Keeping alive the memory of efforts during World War II to obliterate all vestiges of the Jewish people has grown more difficult over the years as the survivors begin to die off. But, as explained by the center’s other co-founder, Harriet Wacks, the Legacy Partners program is designed to pass those memories off to a new generation willing to learn the stories and to speak out.
Again, they need not be Jewish. As Wacks explained, they are realizing her partner Weitz’s dream of creating “a world without bystanders.”
Also receiving the “Upstander Award” were students Kelsey Baker, Rachelle Bassett, Meaghan Bransfield, Hanna Briere, Jacquelyn Duffy, Katelyn Guarino, Courtney Gauthier, Hailey Hanrahan, Harley Hitchman, Ava Ludwig, Antonia Pagliuca, Mark Piandes, Jessica Raymond, Leandra Romano and Austin Solimine. In addition to Peabody and Marblehead, they hail from Wilmington, Lynn and Wakefield.
Winning the Holocaust Center Service Award posthumously was Sumner Feinstein.