SANTA ANA – The message was simple. Remember and educate others, so that an event as horrific as the Holocaust never takes place again.
More than 150 people, including dignitaries representing governments from Orange County and around the globe, attended a reception at the Santa Ana Police Department for the opening of a photo exhibit called “The Courage To Remember: The Holocaust 1933-1945.”
“Often times, history goes by us, and we don’t even realize it,” said Carlos Rojas, the acting police chief. Like other speakers, he encouraged young people, such as a cohort from Santa Ana High School who attended the reception, to see the exhibit. “Make that commitment and make sure that these things don’t happen again. They happened because of actions and inactions of leaders throughout the world.”
Holocaust survivor Elaine Geller, of Sherman Oaks, who as a child in Poland lost several family members yet survived Nazi concentration camps, chose not to dwell on her experience, but on the lessons of it. She explained to the crowd why she tells her story through the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which produced the traveling exhibit.
“To be quiet in the face of evil is to give Hitler a victory,” she said.
She got a chance at the reception to meet Antonio Mendez, 90, of Westminster, who as a young machine gunner with the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division took part in the liberation of a camp at Nordhausen, Germany. He received both Silver and Bronze stars for his service in World War II.
“I feel for them,” he said of survivors like Geller. “The best thing is education. It’s what will help everyone, so that things like this never happen again.”
The exhibit yielded some controversy, mostly because of the backing of French railway company SNCF, which helped transport Jews rounded up in World War II from France to Germany. One of the panels in the exhibit expresses the company’s “sorrow and regret.”
Before they left, many of the students from Santa Ana High School lined up to take cellphone pictures with Geller.
“All of us should really learn about the Holocaust. Some of us don’t really appreciate what it means,” said Edith Corona, 16, an 11th-grader who has visited the Museum of Tolerance. “Seeing an actual survivor was pretty chilling.”
“Most teenagers today don’t even care about this anymore,” said Mitzi Reyes, 16, who is in the 10th grade. “We need to really focus on what happened. We need to realize that life is really precious. I felt really gifted that I got to meet a survivor.”
They’ve already begun telling their friends.
“We just tweeted,” Corona said, “‘I just hugged a survivor from the Holocaust.’”
The free exhibit is in the Police Community Room, 60 Civic Center Plaza, Santa Ana. It will remain there until Feb. 15. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For more information, see couragetoremember.com.