On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities is working on major plans to make sure we continue to never forget one of history’s greatest atrocities.

For the first time in three years, there may be an in-person ceremony May 1, for the annual Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. And this October, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra plans to present a Holocaust-themed opera, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” (2016) by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, along with related programming from several QC groups for up to a year.

A scene from the 2018 Atlanta Opera production of “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” (courtesy of Atlanta Opera).

The last in-person Yom HaShoah was held in May 2019 at Temple Emanuel, Davenport, featuring Dr. Harold Kasimow, professor emeritus of religious studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, a Holocaust survivor who shared his story with more than 300 people.

The annual interdenominational event honors the memory of the estimated 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. 

“My memories of the Holocaust never really go away,” Kasimow said at the 38th-annual QC event. “I live with it every day of my life, with the painful knowledge that nearly 1 million Jewish children died. I am one of about 5,000 who survived.”

Retired Grinnell College religion studies professor Harold Kasimow, a Holocaust survivor, spoke at the Mau 2019 QC Yom Hashoah remembrance ceremony.

Kasimow and his family were living in a small village near what is now Vilnius, Lithuania, when German forces took over the village on July 2, 1941. Kasimow was almost 4 years old at the time. He recalled going into hiding with his parents and two older sisters in order to escape the Nazis after a priest warned the family it was their last chance to escape. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is Jan. 27, in honor of January 27, 1945, when Soviet troops entered Auschwitz, Poland, freeing the survivors of the network of concentration camps—and finally revealing to the world the depth of the horrors perpetrated there.

Today, Jan. 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The QC Yom HaShoah Committee organized virtual remembrance ceremonies during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, including musical performances over Zoom. The 2021 event ended with the “Warsaw Ghetto Stories” dances performed by students of the Creative Arts Academy of the Quad Cities. It included a short Holocaust documentary created by 15 year-old Max Libman of Champaign, Ill., based on his great-grandmother Ann Gershuny.

The 2021 guest speaker was Ida Paluch Kersz, hidden child and Holocaust survivor who was saved by a Catholic family.

“We’ve done virtual ones for two years. It was OK, it was the best we could do with the circumstances,” Allan Ross, executive director of Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, said Wednesday. “This year, we’ve had a couple meetings — we’re really debating, we don’t know what things are gonna be like by May 1st.”

With the latest COVID surge, the 2022 ceremony may have to be virtual again, or a combination of in-person and online, Ross said.

Allan Ross is executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities.

“The debate now within the Yom HaShoah committee, you can’t predict the future,” he said. “What we may end up doing is the participants — the rabbis, the ministers, members of the committee who are going to participate — will be in one place, and we would not get a survivor to come in person, in all probability. They’re really not going to travel now.”

The guest speaker may either be over Zoom, or pre-record a talk to show for the event, Ross said. Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss (a close friend of Anne Frank, who perished at age 15) spoke in the QC 10 years ago, and the Federation has asked if she’d be willing to make a new video talk.

When Schloss (who’s now 92) spoke at the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Ross estimated the crowd at 800.

“Nowadays, I really don’t know how many people would be willing to come,” he said. The QC’s two Jewish congregations have moved from their synagogues into a new building, which would hold about 150 people. The new Beit Shalom (House of Peace) is at 2215 E. Kimberly Road, Davenport, next to Four Seasons.

A Yom HaShoah ceremony may be held at Augustana College or St. Ambrose University, Ross said.

Plans for Holocaust opera and related programs

He’s especially excited about the local premiere of the Holocaust opera, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain,” to be performed Oct. 22 at Augustana College’s Brunner Theatre Center, Rock Island.

“The Symphony brought that to us, and programming around it. It’s exploded, so to speak,” Ross said, noting there will be lots of complementary Holocaust-related programming planned — including the Figge Art Museum, Putnam Museum and Science Center, German American Heritage Center, Ballet Quad Cities, QC Botanical Center, Augustana, and the Rock Island Public Library. Outside the area, the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids and Iowa Jewish Historical Society will be involved.

(In the above Living Local video, Jewish Federation executive director Allan Ross speaks.)

“It’s really amazing to see everybody wanting to be involved, the enthusiasm,” Ross said, noting that Holocaust awareness is fading fast among younger Americans, especially as more survivors pass away.

Brian Baxter, QCSO executive director, said Thursday that the Holocaust opera is being spearheaded by QCSO assistant conductor Ernesto Estigarribia. “Out of the Darkness” only has been performed a few times since its May 2016 premiere in San Francisco.

“Jake Heggie is a really popular composer among singers,” Baxter said. This chamber opera only has a cast of about seven singers, and orchestra of five, he said.

Brian Baxter is executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s a pretty intimate work, with a small group of musicians and singers,” Baxter said. “Being able to have it at a space like Brunner Theatre — no matter where you’re sitting, you’re on top of the action. We like that feeling of really being immersed in the story. We want to fill that place.”

The opera tells the story of two real-life Holocaust survivors. A 2018 review of an Atlanta Opera production said: “Following the spectacular success of his 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie has steadily grown to heights as one of the great composers of American opera, standing tall next to the likes of Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore, Tom Cipullo, and Carlisle Floyd.

“Heggie’s other operatic works include a setting of the famous Moby-Dick and, my personal favorite, Three Decembers. His repertoire of opera and song have become staples of voice recitals and opera companies worldwide which is why Out of Darkness: Two Remain had such strong expectations leading into it which, I am happy to say, it completely exceeded,” the review said.

An image from the opera “Out of Darkness: Two Remain,” to be performed Oct. 22 at Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana College, Rock Island.

Baxter of QCSO said the community partnerships will be similar to how arts organizations like the orchestra banded together with related programs around two previous Figge exhibits, “French Moderns” and “For America.”

“It’s blossomed into a vehicle to offer a larger community-wide initiative, that makes a significant impact,” he said, noting it may stretch for about a year of exhibits, events and presentations, with a focus on fall 2022.

“Each of the partners, we’re all working on an educational component,” Baxter said. “It’s to learn about the past, so we don’t repeat the mistakes,” he said of the Holocaust. “We don’t let stuff like that even come close to happening again.”

Kasimow at the 2019 Yom HaShoah ceremony, warned that intolerance and genocide start with simple discrimination against a certain class, race or religion of people. 

“Hitler and the Holocaust didn’t begin with guns and tanks,” Kasimow said. “It began with evil words.”

Federation seeks essays and art

The Quad Cities Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance) Committee has a call for entries for the Ida Kramer Children and the Holocaust Essay Contest and the Meyer and Frances Shnurman Holocaust Visual Arts Contest, which are open to all QC area students in grades 6-12. The deadline for entries is March 1, 2022.

Both contests offer cash prizes as follows: 

  • First Prize: $500, with a $100 gift card to the teacher who provided guidance.
  • Second Prize: $200, with a $50 gift card to the teacher who provided guidance.
  • Third Prize: $100, with a $50 gift card to the teacher who provided guidance

Details and applications for both contests are available online at www.hecqc.org. For more information, contact the office of the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cites at 309-793-1300 or aross@jfqc.org.   

The QC Yom Hashoah Committee is the sponsor of both contests, with Quad City Arts co-sponsoring the Visual Arts Contest. Essay entries (Essay and Entry Form) must be submitted electronically as an email attachment to aross@jfqc.org with “Yom Hashoah Essay” in the subject line.

Visual Art entries (Artwork, Artist Statement, and Entry Form) should be delivered to Quad City Arts (1715 2nd Avenue, Rock Island, IL 61201) by March 1. (Quad City Arts is open 10-5 Monday-Friday and Saturdays 11-5).

The Visual Art entries may be displayed in schools, libraries, etc. during March, April and/or May 2022.  

The QC Yom HaShoah Committee hopes to have an in-person annual Holocaust Remembrance ceremony on May 1, 2022.

The QC Yom Hashoah Committee is made up of community leaders of various faiths and organizations, and is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities, Temple Emanuel, Tri-City Jewish Center, Churches United, Augustana College, St. Ambrose University, Black Hawk College, and Scott Community College.

“The Committee helps us all remember the Holocaust not simply because it is a Jewish tragedy, but because we believe the world must not be allowed to forget that 12 million innocent human beings, six million of them Jews, were murdered by the Nazis,” according to a committee release. “Yom Hashoah seeks to ensure that a crime of such proportions will never be allowed to happen again. We keep the memory of the Holocaust alive to guard against the wanton destruction of any people.”

The essay contest bears the name of Ida Kramer, former executive director of the Jewish Federation and a longtime Holocaust educator. The visual arts contest bears the name of Meyer and Frances Shnurman, who were both survivors of Nazi extermination camps. 

WQPT showing Holocaust films

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, WQPT (the QC PBS station) is showing Holocaust-related films tonight and tomorrow. Here is the schedule:

  • Thursday, Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. and Friday morning, Jan. 28 at 3 a.m.: “My Survivor”
  • Thursday, Jan. 27 at 11 p.m. and Friday morning, Jan. 28 at 4 a.m.: “What Will Become Of Us?”
  • Friday, Jan. 28, at 1 a.m.: “A Promise to My Father”
  • Friday, Jan. 28, at 2 a.m.: “3 Esthers” 

Produced in 1983 and re-edited in 2012, WQPT’s moving documentary “3 Esthers” chronicles the lives of three QC women, all named Esther, who survived the Holocaust — Esther Katz, Esther Avruch and Esther Schiff. In concentration camps or “hiding-in-plain sight” as a Catholic, their stories will inspire you.

You can also see all the above films online at the same times at https://video.wqpt.org/livestream/.

For more information on the Jewish Federation, visit their website.