NEWARK, NJ - On a warm spring morning in the heart of Newark, more than 500 students from local schools as well as their teachers and staff gathered to get firsthand accounts of individuals who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust.
The gathering was part of a 30th annual affair, organized to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the events of the Holocaust and World War II.
As part of the proceedings, Mayor Ras Baraka read a proclamation honoring the keynote speaker, a Holocaust survivor Michael Zeiger. In his remarks to the audience, Baraka emphasized the importance of holding this kind of remembrance afternoon, particularly in the politically charged climate that exists today.
"We have to be really careful and mindful of the climate that we live in today," Baraka said. "We are promoting the idea that we are here to help and support one another."
Former New Jersey governor James McGreevey, an invited guest to the commemoration ceremonies, echoed Mayor Baraka's sentiments about the importance of such events for students. He noted that New Jersey was the first state in the country to require the teaching of the Holocaust as part of the curriculum.
"Speaking to a survivor always brings back the searing reality of the Holocaust," McGreevey said. "No matter what our concerns or our thoughts or divisions, there's always a greater good - our humanity."
The first Holocaust remembrance event was held in 1987 through the efforts of former mayor Sharpe James, who was also present at the anniversary celebration. Joining him were over 700 high school students from 15 schools who were treated to lunch inside the ballroom of the Robert Treat Hotel.
Zeiger described his family's experiences to the gathered audience - explaining in great detail the feelings of fear and starvation that he and his family experienced while hiding inside of a bunker built by Polish peasants while German troops searched the house above the bunker. He appreciated the opportunity to share his experience with the students.
"When my generation is gone, who is going to tell the story?" Zeiger said. "They have to know where the hate is coming from."
Miles Berger, chairman of the remembrance event and CEO of the Bergen Organization, expressed gratitude to all of the sponsors that have helped make it a reality.
And though the venue for the remberance has changed over the years, it was always an opportunity for Newark youth to experience something that they would not be exposed to otherwise.
"The students change but the message is always the same," Berger said. "Although they are taught about this in school, their neighbors are not Holocaust survivors and this is a way in which they can get closer to the experience of a tragic event."
As for the students themselves, they came away impressed at the opportunity to speak to survivors who personally lived through these experiences that they are taught about in schools.
Ashanti Belen, a freshman at Saint Vincent's Academy was almost brought to tears by the stories of the survivors.
"It made me feel special - touching history," Bellen said. "Until now, actually seeing it before my eyes and talking to someone who lived through it, I finally see how serious it is and how it could affect, even now, a way to prevent it from happening again."