Alachua County’s Jewish community and others will gather Sunday to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day -- or Yom HaShoah as it is known in Hebrew -- to recall horrors that killed at least six million European Jews and millions more during World War II.
Dr. Nili Alon Amit, associate director of the StandWithUs Holocaust Education Center, will be the featured speaker.
Alon Amit said she will focus on the role of women in the European Resistance of the time.
“All the (Jewish) women in the Resistance were smugglers,” Alon Amit said. “Women did not have bodily markings to show they were Jewish.”
If the Nazis captured a man, they could ask him to take his pants off and would know that he was Jewish if he was circumcised, she said.
“Women did not have that. They could pass as Aryans and more easily adaptable to take on different roles,” Alon Amit said.
Alon Amit’s work is based partly on the research of Judith Buber Agassi, who wrote “The Jewish Women Prisoners of Ravensbrück: Who Were They,” and Judy Batalion, who wrote “The Light of Days.” Alon Amit served as a researcher for Agassi while she worked on her doctorate in ancient philosophy from Haifa University.
Alon Amit’s work is also based on personal history Her four grandparents were all Holocaust survivors, who eventually made their way to Israel.
“I wouldn’t have been born if my grandparents weren’t four brave people,” Alon Amit said.
In her talk, Amit Alon said she will focus not just on the tragedy, but what gives people the will to resist and to survive even at the darkest of times.
“What helped people survive the Holocaust and gave them the will to live?” she asked. In her view, it was not just events like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which was unique, as most Jews did not have access to weapons.
“To live is to resist,” Alon Amit said. “You share your meal with someone else or adopt a child and let the child live one more day. Also, the Nazi agenda was to dehumanize Jews. So, keeping clean, maintaining your appearance were important. To feel human, this is resistance. All of these are acts of resistance.”
One resister was Paulette Szlifke-Sarcey, a cousin of Gainesville resident Renée Hoffinger. Szlifke-Sarcey became known for her acts of defiance at Parisian movie theaters where she and her comrades would sit in the balcony and drop leaflets urging people to resist the Nazis when the lights went out. She lived three years under the cover name of Martine.
In June 1943 she was arrested, tortured, and then interned in a series of concentration and work camps. She survived the war and several years late married Max Swiczarczyk -- in 1968 that was changed to Sarcey.
Hoffinger said her father, who was a GI in Europe after World War II, helped Szlifke-Sarcey reconnect with family. Hoffinger said she cherishes the times she got to spend with her cousin.
“In 2018, knowing that she was getting on in years, my husband and I traveled to Europe, because I really wanted to see her again,” Hoffinger said. “It was a very emotional and amazing reunion at her apartment in Montreuil where she had lived for many years. She was last of that generation of my family to still be alive.”
Alon Amit described Hoffinger’s cousin as one of the “amazing brave women of the Resistance. When you look at their faces, they say so much.”
Alon Amit said she also aims to provide Holocaust education about what happened to counteract the growth of Holocaust denial and antisemitism, an issue of growing concern today.
Although Jews only make up 2.4% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center, they are the victims of 55% of religious-based hate crimes in the United States, Department of Justice data shows. StandWithUs has recently joined a campaign headed by the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism through education and creating public awareness.
But Holocaust Remembrance Day is not just a Jewish story.
“It is the story of the disabled, LGBTQ, people of color, Jehovah’s Witnesses … all the marginalized groups who were targeted during the Holocaust. This is a story of all minorities basically and that is why this education is so important,” Alon Amit said.
The talk will begin at 7 p.m. in the B’nai Israel Sanctuary at 3830 NW 16th Avenue. Alon Amit will be in town a few days to offer educational talks at some area schools.
The program will be in person, but a live stream option will also be available on jewishritual.com/yh2023. The same link will work for "play-on-demand" after the live program ends on Sunday.