Survivor Talks Tolerance On Holocaust Remembrance Day

Sami Steigmann lights a candle in honor of the six million people who perished during the Holocaust. (Photo by Sara Grillo)

HOWELL – Members of the Jewish faith recently gathered at Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell for a service of remembrance in honor of Yom HaShoah, which translates to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Congregation Ahavat Olam shared the day of remembrance with congregates from Beth Am Shalom in Lakewood.

A first generation Holocaust survivor lights a candle for the six million people who perished during the Holocaust. (Photo by Sara Grillo)

Besides special prayers, songs and a motivational talk from a notable Holocaust survivor, the service featured a candle lighting ceremony led by Rabbi Stephen Gold. A symbolic six memorial candles were lit, initially by first generation survivors, then children and grandchildren of survivors, in memory of the six million who perished during the Holocaust.

Faith leaders from other local churches, including Sixth Street Baptist Church in Lakewood, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Howell, St. Veronica’s Church in Howell, as well as Ocean County Freeholder Virginia Haines were also invited to light smaller votive candles as part of the ceremony.

There were a handful of Holocaust survivors in attendance at the ceremony. One was brave enough to stand up and give an emotional account of his escape from a labor camp by jumping tents into the woods during the night. He and his older brother were taken in and helped by a Polish woman. Out of his six brothers and two sisters, only he and his brother survived.

Not Your Average Holocaust Survivor

The evening’s keynote speaker, Sami Steigmann, is not who you would call your average Holocaust survivor. He is a cheerful motivational speaker on a mission to spread a life philosophy of positivity.

A first generation survivor lights a candle for the six million people who perished during the Holocaust. (Photo by Sara Grillo)

Steigmann abandoned the podium early on during the discussion and spoke to the packed congregation with a handheld microphone, up close and personal, even walking through the aisles every now and then.

“I am extremely happy to see that a lot of young people are here,” he said. “My goal in life is to empower the young people to be the best that they can be – not sometimes, but all times.”

In fact, Steigmann credits some of his most important self-discoveries from talking with 5th and 6th graders who once asked him to summarize the most important parts of his life. He notes them as the birth of his son, overcoming hate and becoming homeless at the age of 56 while living in New York City, a situation he credits as changing the course of his life.

“If I would have not been homeless, I would have not been volunteering. I probably would have done some other things and been in different situations, but I would not have accomplished many of the things that I have done today.”

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Steigmann’s background is that he was taken to a forced labor camp when he was a child and endured Nazi medical experiments in his early childhood. Although he has no memory of what was done to him, he has suffered from severe head, neck and back pain throughout his life.

Steigmann filed a complaint with the Claims Conference Compensation Program in 2002, and although he had no proof or evidence to prove the long-ago abuse, he was surprised to find they acknowledged the injustice in the form of a single payment – $5,348.36.

Holocaust survivor and keynote speaker Sami Steigmann takes the podium during Congregation Ahavat Olam’s Holocaust Remembrance service on April 24. (Photo by Sara Grillo)

Tolerance In Today’s World

Steigmann spoke to congregates about the importance of tolerance and accepting other people’s options and cultures, but that it doesn’t mean you always have to agree with them.

He brought up the genocide that’s happening right now in the Middle East, especially with the terrorist group ISIS, and the lack of tolerance shown. “They go against Christians and they go against Muslims that do not believe in their ideology,” he said.

Steigmann also broke down the word genocide, sharing that the word “geno” means group and the word “cide” means murder.

“Holocaust, on the other hand, is a unique moment in history. In my personal opinion, it will never happen again. Because of technology today, nobody can claim ‘I didn’t see it, I didn’t hear it, I did not know.’ Everything is instant.”

Perhaps tying back to his theme of empowering the young people of the world, the global problem, in his opinion, stems from one we often see on the playground.

“All the tragedies of the world, the Holocaust, have happened and can be summarized with one word – and that is bullying. You can bully one person or you can bully a group of people.”