For 85-year-old Steve Akerman, there was no more important place to be than seated in the pews of the B'nai Israel Congregation for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland.
Akerman, a Silver Spring resident and native of the former Czechoslovakia, can remember "like it was yesterday" the years he spent as a young Jew working in forced-labor camps during World War II, hoping not to die.
Manny Helzner sang with the Jewish Community Chorus of Washington last Thursday at B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.
(Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)
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Sixty-five of Akerman's relatives perished at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. He and four of his sisters survived and made it to the United States.
And so Akerman came to the Rockville temple last Thursday to remember not only the more than 1 million people who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, but the 6 million victims of the Holocaust.
"Once in a while we need to give remembrance and the history of it," Akerman said. "I'm hoping and praying that this does not repeat itself."
Akerman joined hundreds of people, including several dozen survivors of the concentration camps, at the commemoration, which was sponsored by the Holocaust Commission of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Andrew Stern, president of the council, opened the program by noting that marking the anniversary was "bittersweet" because an anniversary "usually conjures up feelings of joy."
"But this is tempered with sadness. Sadness for those we have lost and what will never be," he told the audience. "What it must have been like for those who faced freedom, but who faced freedom without a sister, a brother."
Michael E. Siegel, chairman of the council's Holocaust Commission, reminded the crowd that when the Russian soldiers, followed by the Americans, arrived at Auschwitz and saw the horrors of the camp, "they could hardly believe their eyes." Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower came to the camp so he could bear witness should others later try to claim that places such as Auschwitz did not exist, Siegel said.
"Now in 2005, there are attempts to deny what happened, just as Eisenhower predicted," Siegel said. "But we know the truth. Auschwitz has become the symbol of terror and genocide. So we gather tonight to remind the world of the horror."
The commemoration was punctuated by song, prayer, poetry and a somber reading of the Holocaust kaddish, a prayer for those who died in the camps.
Washington lawyer Nathan Lewin, the keynote speaker, spoke of his family's experiences and the loss of both his grandfathers and other family members.
Lewin's maternal grandfather, Naftali Sternheim, was killed at Auschwitz, and his paternal grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Lewin, was hung by a Ukrainian mob.
"Before you today stands a grandfather who never really knew his own grandfathers. Both men were murdered when they were younger than I am today," said Lewin, 69, of Potomac. "Both were men of great distinction, leaders in their communities, whose lives were brutally extinguished only because they were Jews."