In recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Gilda Zirinsky recalled stark memories of survival as a child fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe to listeners at the Nassau County Holocaust Tolerance and Memorial Center.
Zirinsky’s narrative unfolded with vivid detail, transporting listeners back to May 10, 1940, when the skies over Belgium echoed with the ominous roar of enemy planes. At just five-years-old, Zirinsky found herself thrust into a world of chaos and uncertainty when her family was forced to leave behind the lives that they had worked hard to create and love.
The 88-year-old said she could still remember the sounds of enemy planes flying overhead; quickly packing a small bag and leaving her kitten behind while desperately trying to seek refuge in neighboring countries to escape persecution by the Nazis. Her father and male cousins were left to fight against the Germans while her mother, siblings, and cousins boarded trains to stay alive. Often the weather was cold, and they were hungry as they slept on floors unable to return home. Her journey led her to Portugal, Morocco and Casablanca until she finally found refuge in the United States.
“My message to you is to remember to always help a loved one, love one another and not forget to be tolerant. There’s too much sadness and anger in our world,” Zirinsky said during her speech at the center. “So spread the word to be kind and never to forget. Help those who need it the most. This could happen again anywhere at any time.”
Saturday marked the 79th anniversary of the day Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, the concentration camp complex where over 1 million people were murdered by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945, with the vast majority being Jews. Altogether, the Nazis killed 6 million European Jews during the Holocaust. Zaretsky’s stirring account served as a sobering reminder of the atrocities of the past that still linger.
For many, International Holocaust Remembrance feels different this year, especially for Natalie Natalie Sanandaji, a 28-year-old Jewish-American from Great Neck who spoke about surviving the open-air Tribe of Nova music festival. The attack is believed to be the worst civilian massacre in Israeli history. In a single day, Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and took roughly 240 people captive. The U.S. and nations around the world have recorded an uptick in reports of anti-Semitism since then. The ongoing war has also claimed the lives of over 26,000 Palestinians
On Oct. 7, Sanandaji found herself in the midst of chaos as rockets pierced the night sky, turning a festive atmosphere into a scene of panic and survival. Recounting her experience, Sanandaji described the surreal transition from enjoying music and camaraderie to confronting the stark reality of danger.
Sanandaji and her three friends initially remained calm, accustomed to the occasional threat in the region. However, the situation escalated rapidly as the scale of the attack became apparent. Evacuation orders were issued, and festival goers scrambled to safety amidst the chaos.
Forced to make split-second decisions amid uncertainty, Sanandaji, and her friends faced what she describes as “choiceless choices” — decisions made under extreme duress with no clear outcome. From changing directions mid-flight to avoiding precarious hiding spots, every move carried life or death consequences.
During her four-hour escape, Sanandaji narrowly evaded a potentially fatal encounter. Unaware of the imminent danger, she ventured to the festival’s bathrooms, only later learning that Hamas terrorists had targeted the same location.
While addressing the audience at the center, Sanandaji recalled being referred to as a “survivor” and being asked how she felt about being called a survivor in comparison to Holocaust survivors.
“It’s very different,” Sanandaji said. “For me, as a survivor, I survived an attempted genocide of one day. Holocaust survivors survived the genocide of four years.”