Honoring Jewish stories on Yom HaShoah

Shaaray Shalom hosts survivors’ testimony


Shirley Gottesman, 16, was forced to collect the shoes scattered across the crematorium floor in the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was alone — she didn’t know where her mother was. She hadn’t seen her injured grandmother since they got off the train. And as she gathered the shoes of the men, women and children who had been killed in the ovens, she recognized one. It was her mother’s.

Those gathered in Congregation Shaaray Shalom, in West Hempstead, last Sunday evening hung on Gottesman’s every word. Though she died last August at age 96, her testimony lives on in video. The event marked Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Descendents of the victims and survivors lit eight candles — one to remember the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel, one to remember the non-Jewish lives lost in World War II, and six more, each signifying 1 million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust.

“For us, it is simply not humanly possible to grasp what 6 million murders mean,” said Larry Rosenberg, the program organizer and host. “The number is just way too large — but we can try.

“Although these lives were taken, and many others were cruelly tormented,” he added, “Jewish existence has not been eliminated.”

Shaaray Shalom was filled with worshippers from Jewish congregations across Nassau county, elected officials, and those of other faiths who wanted to mark the Holocaust. In all, between those listening in person and those who watched on Zoom, the synagogue leadership estimated that more than 700 people observed the service.

This Yom HaShoah was different from years past, coming just seven months after the Hamas attack.

“While I do not believe that anything can nor should ever be compared to the Holocaust, we are seeing some of the worst antisemitic uprising that most of us have ever witnessed or remember in our lifetime,” Mindy Perlmutter, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island, said. “One crucial difference about the antisemitism that we are seeing now, versus what we were seeing in the 1930s, is that we have a state of Israel. Remember, the state of Israel wasn't established because the Holocaust ended. Rather, the Holocaust happened because there was no state of Israel.”

Many attendees echoed the sentiment that supporting Israel is key to defending against present-day antisemitism. Among them was U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, who said he was especially concerned about the recent protests at Columbia University. D’Esposito has twice met with Minouche Shafik, Columbia’s president, as well as with House Speaker Mike Johnson.

“The individuals that are on that campus — there are many there that were carrying out their constitutional right, their right to protest, their freedom of speech, their passion for or against an issue, whether we agree with them or not,” D’Esposito said. “But when that freedom of speech crosses the line to violence; when that freedom of speech crosses the line to Jewish students feeling threatened; when that freedom of speech crosses the line to spitting in Jews’ faces and ripping their Stars of David off their necks … ladies and gentlemen, that’s no longer freedom of speech. That’s a violent uprising.”

But the gathering was celebratory, too. Though antisemitism is rising — the Anti-Defamation League has reported a 337 percent increase in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 — the congregants of Shaaray Shalom, the Malverne Jewish Center and other synagogues said they refuse to let fear stop them from gathering.

“The individuals throughout this country that have called for the destruction of Israel, that want to hurt and cause harm to Jewish people — they should have a bird’s eye view into this synagogue to know we are not going anywhere, and we will not back down,” D’Esposito said.

Though Shirley Gottesman experienced unspeakable horrors and lost many family members, she went on to live a long life. She fell in love with a childhood friend. They married, moved to New York and had two children, five grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. Despite the Nazis’ best efforts, Jewish life was not extinguished.

“We succeeded to rebuild,” Gottesman said in her video testimony. “Never replace. But thank God, we succeeded.”

Keynote speaker Nancy Spielberg, the sister of director Steven Spielberg, is a filmmaker who focuses on telling Jewish stories that otherwise might have been lost to history.

She was working on a project, filming in what used to be the Jewish ghettos in Poland. It was haunting, Spielberg said — “Every time I took a step in Poland, I was stepping on a bone, and on blood that had been spilled there.”

A little girl was acting in the film, and at one point her mother leaned in close to Spielberg and whispered something that has stayed with her ever since.

“She said, ‘My mother, her grandmother, lived in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Spielberg recalled. “‘And here my daughter is playing this role in the film.’ And it felt like we were honoring her mother’s memory.”

It’s more important than ever, Spielberg said, to remain united and to prioritize understanding over division. “It’s incredible how vast the Jewish story is,” she said. “The point of making these films is not just so we can understand each other better — that the people who aren’t Jewish can try to understand us.”