Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Yom Hashoah, is a day to commemorate the millions who perished in the Holocaust.
Bet Haverim, a Davis synagogue, will host this year’s congregation today at 7 p.m. The community-wide event will take place at the Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento.
Alexander Groth, professor emeritus of political science at UC Davis, will be the featured speaker for this event. Groth is one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust.
Groth was a seven-year-old living in Warsaw, Poland when World War II began. He was there on Oct. 5, 1939, the day Hitler reviewed his victory parade over the defeat of Poland’s capital. He watched the Nazis take over Warsaw.
“The Nazis looked invincible,” Groth said. “As a young boy, I looked at this army and said to myself, ‘nobody’s going to beat these guys.'”
During the freezing Polish winter, Groth and his Jewish family were moved into the ghetto. According to Groth, it was a space of about two square miles which held – at one point – half a million people.
Up until then, all he had experienced was the constant bombing and artillery fire in the streets of Warsaw. The harsh realities of the Holocaust didn’t hit him until he saw the mass starvation and disease that spread throughout the ghetto.
“They officially promulgated a starvation food ratio for the people, 184 calories per person a day,” Groth said. “If you go out on the streets, you would see people look like the victims of concentration camps.… They were emaciated, skeletal-looking figures moaning, groaning and crying.”
It was his first exposure to Hitler’s final solution.
By July 1942, the Nazis began deportations to the gas chamber. He and his mother were spared. She attained a permit to work in a German factory to make socks for the German army. She hid her son in boxes of socks while she was at work.
It wasn’t long until he had a brush with death. One day, the Schutzstaffel – the Nazi Party’s shield squadron – came to conduct a selection. Shooting erupted from the courtyard with the call, “Jews out!”
“Everybody had to go in front of them, and they decided who would live and who would die,” Groth said. “They would consign people to a group that was going to go to the gas chambers, or they let you go.”
Miraculously, neither Groth nor his mother were taken away or punished. By this point, Groth’s mother was determined that they would escape by any means necessary.
They did so in late August 1942 with a Jewish worker group that worked on the other side of the wall. From there, they traveled from house to house, hiding and living in continual fear of being revealed to the Nazis or being killed.
“My mother carried two cyanide tablets, one for herself and one for me in case we were caught,” Groth said. “She didn’t get rid of those until we were liberated by the Soviet Russian army and our death sentence was lifted.”
Liberated in 1945 in the vicinity of Krakow, he and his mother returned to Warsaw, where they found the body of Groth’s stepfather. His mother contacted her relatives living in America, and they devised a plan to leave the country. They left from the Polish port of Gdynia on a Swedish vessel, made their way to Sweden, and then to the United States.
“Just a few days after my 15th birthday, I sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor,” Groth said.
Almost immediately, he began attending a free public high school called the High School of Commerce. He graduated and went to the City College of New York, and later to Columbia, where he received a master’s degree and a Ph.D.
Following the completion of his education, Groth began teaching at UC Davis as a political science professor. He officially retired in 1991, but he didn’t stop teaching until 1998.
Undoubtedly, the Holocaust was a major influence in his life. Aside from anxiety nightmares, which continue to plague him to this day, he feels that his passion for political science was ignited by the event.
“I used to tell students that I was never interested in political science until I was seven years old,” Groth said. “When I saw the parade, I became a political scientist.”
In 2003, he published a book called Holocaust Voices, which was based on a compilation of interviews with 250 other Holocaust survivors.
Groth, now age 76, is speaking about his experiences at the Holocaust Remembrance Day 2008 commemoration. His aim is to dispel some of the myths surrounding the Holocaust.
Although he personally feels a large sense of gratitude toward the allied soldiers, airmen, and sailors who fought in the war, he is angry about the denial of the Holocaust until it was too late.
He cites Dec. 17, 1942 as an example. On this day, the Allied Nations issued a declaration that specifically said the Nazis were putting into effect a plan to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe.
Yet Prime Minister Winston Churchill denied it on Aug. 1,1946, and said he had no idea of the things that were happening to the Jews.
“It wasn’t a secret, but the world was completely oblivious to that,” Groth said. “They chose to ignore it.”
“We want people to come away with a better understanding of the magnitude of the tragedy,” said Muriel Brounstein, chair of Holocaust Remembrance Day events, in an e-mail interview. “We want everyone to personally commit that ‘never again’ will the world allow another Holocaust.”
Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Bet Haverim also hopes that the event leaves a strong impact.
“Even though it’s a very somber experience, I want people to take away a sense of hope and a sense of our vitality in the Jewish community,” Wolfe said. “If we can overcome something as enormous as the Holocaust, we can take this spirit and use this in our everyday life.”
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