Christians address Holocaust silence at interfaith event

The instrumental music was Christian. The songs and setting were Jewish. The prayers, tributes and tales of persecution were universal.

The subject was the Holocaust, and about half the audience of 150 came from nearby churches to participate in the interfaith service at Fremont's Temple Beth Torah.

The Rev. Declan Deane of Fremont's Holy Spirit Catholic Church, a recent Irish immigrant who was at a synagogue service for the first time, said the dark Nazi legacy inspired him to participate.

"It was the horror of the Holocaust and the silence of so many Christians, which appalls me," he said.

The Rev. Manuel Simas of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Fremont had similar thoughts.

"It's just overwhelming," he said.

Presented by the Tri City Ministerial Association, a union of religious leaders from Fremont, Irvington and the Niles area, the interfaith Holocaust service tradition is now in its 13th year. Each year, a Holocaust survivor gives testimony.

Simas had spoken to Holocaust survivors before the service, having worked with priests who had been incarcerated in concentration camps. "It's very difficult to comprehend something like this, and to comprehend that people now deny it happened," he said.

Though the text for the program said most Christians were slow to speak out against the Nazis, Simas read accounts of those who had tried to help the Jews. One of them, Bernard Lichtenberg, died while in Nazi imprisonment after publicly including Jews in his daily prayers.

Ironically, Sunday night's program at Beth Torah was led by two Catholic priests, the Rev. Kristen Sachen of the First United Methodist Church, and no rabbis. Beth Torah's Rabbi Steven Kaplan was ill. Jack Weinstein, head of the temple's social action committee, acted in his stead.

Kaplan, however, was primarily responsible not only for the text and organization of Sunday night's service, but for the Tri City Ministerial Association's Holocaust service tradition.

It was Kaplan who first suggested the idea to the association 13 years ago, according to temple administrator Allen Minsky, who helped put together Sunday's program.

Since then, the association has held programs every year, sometimes in churches.

This year, Holocaust survivor and Beth Torah congregant Leon Vermont talked about his journey escaping persecution throughout his native France.

When he was 11, French and German police came to round up the Jews, and pounded on his family's door. Lacking any better plan, Vermont's mother had the children hide under the bed.

"In retrospect, it's pathetic," Vermont told the gathering.

But as it happened, the ploy worked. Vermont survived to spend the rest of the war bouncing between concentration camps, orphanages, forests, farms, train stations and even a Dominican convent.

"The priests were very nice to me, but frankly not much on conversation," Vermont said.

For Joe Faria, the organist for Saint Joseph's who also played at the interfaith ceremony, Vermont's testimony was the most gripping part of the program.

"A child has a different sense of terror," Faria said. Holocaust testimonies he had heard before had usually come from prominent people or people who had been adults during the Holocaust. "This is the side of the story that isn't often heard."

Also participating in the service were Cantor Sylvia Wishnoff and the Wesley Bell Ringers from the First United Methodist Church of Fremont.

Mary Snell, a congregant from Saint Joseph's, said the Jewish music was beautiful. But like many of the non-Jews at the service, she was afraid to join in. "I didn't want to ruin it," she said.