State Holocaust remembrance features stories of resistance

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2014 

— On Sunday, Barbara Rodbell of Chapel Hill described the ordinary life of a young girl living in Berlin, before Nazi persecution of Jews forced her family to flee its home for Holland.

It was there, in the 1930s, that Rodbell became friends with diarist Anne Frank’s older sister, Margot, and Rodbell’s family befriended the Franks. Rodbell later used her position in a ballet company and false identity papers she obtained to hide Jews, move them to hiding places after curfew, and distribute an underground newspaper.

The N.C. Council on the Holocaust’s annual commemoration, held Sunday at Meredith College, featured stories of heroism and resistance. Hundreds of people, from concentration camp survivors to school children, attended the event where Rodbell gave living remembrance of events more than six decades past.

“I want to make sure that everybody remembers what happened,” said Rodbell, 88, who moved to the United States in 1947. “Maybe you will behave in a different way – be more helpful to others. … Try to honor the people who died just because they were who they were.”

These stories inspire us to lead heroic lives, said Michael Abramson, council chairman. Everyone has the responsibility to denounce genocide, he said, because it doesn’t require active support to continue. “It only requires silence,” he said.

Rodbell narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz because, after leaving home, she happened to visit her parents the night before a roundup of Jews in their neighborhood. Her parents died in Auschwitz.

Rodbell joined concentration-camp survivors in lighting memorial candles during the commemoration.

Sunday’s event also recalled the story of Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who witnessed the starvation and torture of Jews in Warsaw under Nazi occupation. Impersonating a Ukrainian guard at a transit camp, he saw Jews shoved into railway cars. But his pleas to British and American governments to intervene in the genocide were ignored.

Raleigh resident Wanda Urbanska, president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation, talked about the resistance fighter. Karski, a Roman Catholic, risked his life to smuggle information to the Polish government in exile and gather information on Nazi atrocities that he spread to the West, she said.

His 1944 memoir, “Story of a Secret State,” was a bestseller. And Karski’s story still resonates because it speaks to “the universal value of looking out for the other,” Urbanska said in an interview after the event.

On the centennial of his birth, there’s renewed interest in Karski.

“His legacy continues to grow with each passing year,” she said.

Karski stayed in the United States after World War II, earned a doctorate from Georgetown University, and taught there for 40 years.

The U.S. Senate in April passed a resolution honoring him.

President Barack Obama awarded Karski, a naturalized American, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Israel awarded him honorary citizenship in 1994. Karski died in 2000.

Urbanska said Sunday she planned to donate copies of Karski’s memoir for use in schools.

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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