Out & About: Lessons of the Holocaust focus of Thetford interfaith event

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-29-2024 6:01 PM

THETFORD — Two Upper Valley congregations are joining together to host an event that encourages people of different religions to discuss faith and the Holocaust.

“Faith Among the Ashes: Lessons From Holocaust Survivors” is scheduled to take place Sunday, April 14 at 1:30 p.m. at the First Congregation Church in Thetford, located at 2596 Route 113. It is being cosponsored by Kol Ha’Emek, the Upper Valley Jewish Community.

The first part of the event features a staged reading of a play from “After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring,” written by Rabbi Joseph Polak. The reading will be followed by a discussion led by Polak and other Holocaust survivors to discuss “reconciling faith with catastrophe.”

Polak — who is the chief justice of the Rabbinic Court of Massachusetts, and adjunct associate professor of health law at the Boston University School of Public Health — will be attending the event via Zoom. There also is a chance other Holocaust survivors will speak either via Zoom or in-person. Professor Nancy Harrowitz, who is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, will moderate the discussion.

Charlie Buttrey, a Thetford resident and attorney, decided to organize the event after hearing Polak speak via Zoom during a class at Boston University, where Buttrey is pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies.

“His story really resonated with me,” Buttrey said. “How do you reconcile … an all loving God with human catastrophe such as the Holocaust?”

Polak, who is now in his 80s, survived after being sent to two concentration camps as a toddler during the Holocaust. Polak’s memoir also examines life after the Holocaust and the way the memories affect survivors throughout their lives.

“One of the things we have to understand is that within 10, 15 years tops there will be no one left on the face of the earth with a present recollection of the Holocaust,” Buttrey said. “We have to for as long as we can learn from these survivors so we don’t forget.”

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Buttrey, who described his religious views as “progressive Christianity,” reached out to Kol Ha’Emek, the Upper Valley Jewish Community, to see if they’d be interested in co-sponsoring the event.

“I think it’s wonderful to have interfaith events,” said Roberta Berner, a West Lebanon resident who is president of the congregation. “I think the more we can do to build bridges the better.”

After hearing about the event, Rob Greene, a member of Kol Ha’Emek, read Polak’s book.

“It’s very beautifully written,” Greene, of Lebanon, said. “It’s very haunting.”

Two parts in particular stood out to him, the first was Polak’s somewhat spotty memories as a toddler.

“The second is this idea that the Holocaust didn’t end with the liberation,” Greene said. “Years on, people have memories and actions and reactions to things.”

At one point in the book, Polak describes how he gets uncomfortable when he sees a poplar tree. Decades after liberation, Polak returns to the transit camp where he stayed before being sent to a concentration camp.

“He realized it was surrounded by poplar trees so that was the origin of this fear he had since he was a toddler,” Greene said.

The timing of the event is also important, Greene said, especially with the current rise of antisemitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, between Oct. 7 — when the Israel-Hamas War started — and Dec. 7, 2023, there were a reported 2,031 antisemitic incidents, compared to 465 incidents from that same time period in 2022.

“It’s an opportunity to hear about the Holocaust, to hear from someone with a unique perspective that’s thought about it for a long time, especially in the current environment,” he said. “Unfortunately, Vermont and New Hampshire are not immune.”

For more information, contact Buttrey at charliebuttrey@yahoo.com or 802-281-9382. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.