NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - They might look like a couple dozen books on a library shelf.
But to those gathered in North Salem to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they are so much more.
They are a physical reminder of why humans must first be able to take an unflinching look at the past, however painful, before we can hope for a future unmarred by ignorance and hatred, said speakers at the recent re-dedication of the Fred Bachner Holocaust Collection.
The memoirs and other materials were donated to the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library by the Somers Holocaust Memorial Commission.
Marked by a brass plaque, the special collection was named in honor of Bachner, the commission’s late founder. The Somers resident was a prisoner at Auschwitz and several other concentration camps.
His incredible story, like the wrenching accounts by other Holocaust survivors in the collection’s volumes, gives perspective to the commission’s mission of educating people—especially the young—about human rights and the Shoah: the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime and collaborators during World War II.
Speaking Monday, Jan. 27, were SHMC president Steven E. Waldinger and state Supreme Court Justice Lewis J. Lubell.
North Salem flutist Daniella Friedman performed two moving pieces: one from the film “Schindler’s List” and one the middle school student composed herself.
According to Waldinger, the interfaith SHMC encourages high school students in Somers and North Salem to create projects in visual arts, poetry, music and other artistic mediums that were inspired by Holocaust Human Rights studies.
Those works are showcased, and the students given awards, at the organization’s annual “Evening of Reflection and Remembrance.”
It also helps schools establish human rights-orientated curriculum and programs, supports a book collection at the Somers Library and provides scholarships to graduating seniors committed to human rights.
Waldinger told the crowd Monday, Jan. 27, that he found it “heartening, particularly in these times of increasingly frequent and disturbing acts of anti-Semitism, that our work has literally touched the lives of thousands of students.”
Many of those young people are now in their 30s and 40s.
“That those people are out there with perhaps some heightened level of understanding, empathy or decency because of what this commission does, in my view, is the most remarkable legacy of Fred Bachner,” he said.
Waldinger, paying homage to Bachner’s wife, Ruth, then read a letter from the couple’s daughter, Ellen Bachner Greenberg.
Here is her retelling of her father’s story.
In January 1945, knowing that the Soviet Army was approaching, the Germans “wanted to get rid of the evidence—everyone who had witnessed their crimes.”
Nearly 60,000 prisoners—in what was known as a “Death March”—were forced to evacuate Auschwitz and subcamps in Nazi-occupied Poland on Jan. 27.
Europe was suffering through one of the coldest winters in its history, with blizzards and below-zero temperatures.
Weakened by hunger and illness, and wearing nothing other than thin striped uniforms and torn shoes, many could not keep pace and were shot dead. Thousands also succumbed to starvation and exposure as they were mercilessly herded toward the interior of the German Reich.
Bachner—with B-10618 branded on his arm—was among the few hundred prisoners who made it alive to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany on Feb. 22.
He did hard labor on a construction site until April when word came that the allied forces were approaching.
Bachner and other inmates were loaded on a train heading toward the mountains and were told they were to be shot, Greenberg wrote.
“Deciding not to leave things up to fate,” he and two others somehow managed to jump off the train undetected.
Walking through the frigid forest for days, the three finally spotted white flags, a signal that the war was over, and American soldiers.
Bachner was eventually reunited with his father and brother. His mother did not survive the war.
Ruth Bachner and her family had escaped from Vienna and were in Belgium when it was invaded by Germany on May 10, 1940.
In an interview for Westchester Magazine, Bachner remembers she and her brother had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing. Her parents, desperate to save the children, entrusted them to a Catholic priest who hid them in a convent.
To protect her, the nuns changed her name to Marie Renée Le Roi.
After the war ended, Ruth was reunited with her mother and taken to the United States, where she met and married Fred Bachner.
The couple raised two daughters in Hartsdale—Ellen and Cindy—before moving to Somers. They also had several grandchildren.
Ruth Bachner told the magazine that “because of our experiences,” she and her husband taught their children “never to hate others because they have different beliefs.”
Fred Bachner died in 2008. In his obituary, he is described as a “Holocaust survivor who taught tolerance to children so they would understand the atrocities of the Holocaust.”
EDUCATION IS KEY
Referring to the recent rise in hate crimes and anti-Semitism, Lubell noted that the “true administration of justice is more important than ever.”
However, knowledge of the past is also crucial. That’s why people must read the books, watch the documentaries and films, listen to survivors tell their stories, no matter how painful, he said.
As a Jewish person, Lubell has personally experienced the sickening results of rampant ignorance.
“Getting to the heart of it all, it’s not just us who has to understand what’s happening, but all faiths and ethnicities,” he said.
Holocaust and human rights education takes place “one student at a time; one school at a time; one locale at a time,” Lubell said.
“People need to be sensitive to hatred at every level so it can’t happen again. It’s up to all of us.”
The SHMC is always looking for new members. To join, contact its president, Steve Waldinger, at: Somers Holocaust Memorial Commission, Box 301, Somers, NY 10589.