PEABODY — More than 200 people gathered at Salem State’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, an annual observance commemorating six million Jewish Holocaust victims Wednesday night.
To honor survivors and their families, the university’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies hosted a community commemoration at Higgins Middle School.
In the school’s auditorium, those gathered heard keynote speeches from Holocaust survivor Janet Applefield and photographer Richard Wiesel.
After Holocaust survivors and their families led a candle-lighting ceremony, Applefield, 84, took to the stage.
“People make choices, but choices make history,” Applefield said. “I hope each and every one of us will stand up to any type of discrimination and injustice.”
At age 4, Applefield fled with her family to the Soviet Union during the Invasion of Poland in 1939.
“It became clear to my parents that there was no place to hide, no place to escape,” she said. Officers decided “who would live and who would die.”
She was later sheltered by a Polish family and was eventually sent to Plaszow concentration camp. Throughout her childhood, Applefield said her name changed three times. She lost both her mother and younger sister.
In 1947, after deciding that “Poland was one big morgue,” Applefield and her father immigrated to the U.S., settling with extended family in New Jersey. She later completed college and earned a master’s degree in social work from Boston University.
Applefield has three children and five grandchildren. Today, she continues to travel, sharing her story and the story of those who aided her survival.
“I’m a witness of history,” she said. “Even when I’m gone, I know they will continue to tell my story.”
The name Yom HaShoah originates from the Hebrew word Shoah, meaning catastrophe. Holocaust Remembrance Week continues through Sunday, with observances taking place across the country.
The evening’s ceremony was dedicated to the memory of Sonia Schreiber Weitz, Holocaust survivor and human rights activist who co-founded the Holocaust Center Boston North.
Several local middle school and high school students were presented with awards, while seventh-grader Moamel Al-Azzawi from Breed Middle School earned the Sonia Schreiber Weitz Upstander Award for his acts of bravery and courage.
The event was hosted by Christopher Mauriello, professor and director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Other speakers included Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt and Salem State President John Keenan. State Sen. Joan Lovely was also in attendance.
A moment of silence was held to reflect on the shootings at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego and the earlier synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
Bettencourt spoke of the importance of coming together as a community to remember all those affected by “senseless atrocity.”
Songs were performed during the evening by the Salem State University Community Chorus and Temple Emanu-El’s Jewish Music Neighborhood and prayers led by Alty Weinreb, cantor from the Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.
Wiesel, an Australian photographer, presented sections of his Berlin Holocaust Memorial Project — which showcased photographs of victims’ discarded belongings from German concentration and transitional camps, including clothing, children’s toys, silverware and miniature bibles.
“The strength of these images allows the audience to engage on a personal level,” Wiesel said during his keynote address.
His favorite image captured is one of a child’s teddy bear, which belonged to a young Romanian boy who was shot and killed. “This is one that resonates with me the most,” Wiesel added. It also appeared as the cover image of the evening’s program.
“It is my hope these images have reached you in some way or move you enough to share them with others,” he said.
Staff writer Alyse Diamantides can be reached at 978-338-2660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.