Lewin and his parents avoided a similar fate by escaping from Poland in 1939 when he was 3, slipping across the border to Lithuania and eventually landing in New York in 1941. Although it was hard for the family to accept the possibility that their relatives hadn't survived, Lewin said, it was also difficult for his father to deal with the disbelief among American Jews in the face of growing evidence of the Nazi atrocities.
Lewin's father wrote articles in the Yiddish press detailing the horrors and the killing of Jews in Polish ghettos. But his words fell on deaf ears.
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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He condemned the silence of American Jews, writing, "We ask the leaders of Jewish organizations in America: 'What will you answer on the day of reckoning?' " Lewin said.
"They said it wasn't so, it couldn't be so. But it was so."
For Akerman and others in the audience, Lewin's words rekindled memories of their experiences and losses.
Akerman spoke of the years he spent trying to stay alive, occasionally faking a technical skill to make himself useful and avoid being sent to his death. He recalled a time in one German camp when he and other prisoners were forced to witness the nighttime hanging of two Russian prisoners who were caught breaking into a food supply.
"We were all lined up in zero-degree weather, under star-studded skies, bare naked as the day you were born, and we had to witness the hanging," he said.
Morris Alschuler, 66, of Rockville lives with the pain of never knowing his many relatives who perished in the Holocaust. His paternal grandmother was shot in her bed, and others were lost in the camps, he said.
"These people were actually my grandmother, aunts, uncles and first cousins," said Alschuler, who attended the event with his wife, Harriet.
Commemorating events such as the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is an important way to remind the world that the Holocaust occurred, they said, especially as memories begin to dim and survivors become fewer.
"It's important for us to be here in commemoration for what people have gone through," Harriet Alschuler said.