Holocaust Remembrance Day event underscores the power of words at Riverhead Library

At a solemn Holocaust Remembrance Day event there were no pictures, no posters, no charts. There were no visuals at all — just words.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, one by one, members of the Riverhead community rose to the podium at Riverhead Free Library Monday night to read sometimes devastating passages from the diaries, letters and poems of Holocaust victims and survivors, interspersed with durable observations  about the genocidal Nazi campaign. The event was sponsored by Heart of Riverhead Civic Association. An audio recording of the readings is embedded below.

Riverhead Board of Education president Colin Palmer read from the diary of Klaus Langer, who, at age 14, documented a first-hand account of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” a vicious 1938 pogrom against Jews in Germany and Austria.

“At three o’clock, the synagogue and Jewish youth center were put on fire. Then they began to destroy Jewish businesses. During the morning, private homes were also being demolished. Fires were started at single homes belonging to Jews. At 6:30 in the morning, the Gestapo came to our door and arrested mother and father. Mother returned after about one and a half hours, Dad remained and was put in prison.”

Klaus went on to describe walking over “glass splinters” into his ransacked home that morning. About a week later, he wrote, “I received a letter from school with an enclosed notice of dismissal. This has become superfluous since that same day an order was issued that prohibited us from attending public schools.”

The boy was ultimately spirited out of the country. “Klaus changed his name to Jacob,” Mr. Palmer said. “None of his family survived.”

Rabbi Michael Rascoe of Temple Israel of Riverhead, read a quote from Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men ready to believe and act without asking questions.”

Adele Wallach, whose namesake grandmother was killed in the Holocaust, read a March 1944 passage from Anne Frank’s diary, in which the young girl writes to her imaginary friend, Kitty.

“Imagine how interesting it would be if I would publish a novel about the secret annex,” she wrote of where she and her family were hiding from the Nazis. “The title alone would make people think it was a detective story. Seriously, though, 10 years after the war, people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate, and what we talked about as Jews in hiding … You know nothing of these matters, and it would take me all day to describe everything down to the last detail.”

Anne Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on March 31, 1945, two weeks before its liberation by Allied forces. She was 15.

Kerry Spooner, a Suffolk County Community College assistant professor, read from a Time magazine article about the “999,” a little-known story about hundreds of teenage girls who were rounded up and placed on the first official transport to Auschwitz.

“At the end of February 1942, a rumor began circulating around a small town in eastern Slovakia, and soon the town crier was announcing that all unmarried Jewish girls had to go to the town’s registration office for reasons which would become clear in due course. Teenage sisters Edith and Lee Friedman were worried, but complied with the order, registering for what they thought was a ‘work opportunity’ and believing that they were doing their duty for their country.

“The reality was more sinister than anyone in town could have imagined,” the article continued. “Hundreds of young, unmarried Jewish women joined the girls from Humenne from other small towns and villages across Slovakia, forced to stay in the inhumane and traumatizing Poprad barracks, where they were fed starvation rations and ordered to clean the barracks on their hands and knees. At 8:20 p.m. on March 25, 1942, the girls that had been rounded up in Poprad — numbering 999 in total — boarded a train that would take them to Auschwitz.”

Riverhead resident Harley Abrams, a member of the Temple Israel board of trustees, read a passage from Elie Wiesel’s 1995 speech marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Mr. Abrams introduced the passage with a personal story.

“The last Sunday in June 1969, I was 12 years old. My sister was graduating from Riverhead High School as co-valedictorian … That morning, somebody painted a swastika on our driveway and on the road in front of our house. I understood World War II, or at least I knew about it. I knew about the Holocaust. I knew what a swastika was. But I never really understood this symbol until many years later.”

He then read a passage from Wiesel’s speech.“In this place of darkness and malediction we can but stand in awe and remember its stateless, faceless and nameless victims. Close your eyes and look: Endless nocturnal processions are converging here, and here it is always night. Here heaven and earth are on fire.”