FAIRFIELD — While observing Passover this week, town resident George Markley was also busy, with the help of a diverse committee, finalizing the details for this year’s Holocaust Commemoration.

The late Selectman Eunice Postol made a request to then First Selectman Jacquelyn Durrell in 1983 for such a yearly event, following a call from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council for days of remembrance to be observed all over the country. The first local remembrance was held in 1984 at the First Church Congregational, which remains, to this day, as the site for town’s observance.

It is believe that Fairfield’s 1984 event was the first in the region.

This year’s speaker is Richard A. Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. Freund is featured in a NOVA documentary airing April 19 on PBS about an expedition he led to Lithuania to document the Ponar escape tunnel.

More Information

34th annual Holocaust Commemoration

Wednesday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.

First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Road

Speaker: Richard A. Freund, director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies, University of Hartford

Musical selections: Fairfield Ludlowe High School Chamber Orchestra; Chamber Sings of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir

Admission is free; Reception to follow

NOVA documentary on Polnar tunnel airs April 19

For more info, visit fairfieldholocaustcommemoration.org

Q: What is the Holocaust Commemoration?

A: This is an event, now in its 34th year here in Fairfield. It originated to make certain, as most Holocaust commemorations do, to make sure people don’t forget the Holocaust, that there is a reminder annually of the horror of the Holocaust. And, more importantly, a message that will prompt people to never allow it to happen again in any shape or form, anywhere.

Q: How has the event changed since it was first held?

A: I don’t go back 34 years, but I’ve been to them, off and on, for 15 or 20 years.

They’re larger, the number of people who attend has grown. It’s become not just a Fairfield community event, but a regional commemoration. A lot of people attend from Bridgeport, and Trumbull and Westport.

We also see a younger generation now attending. Historically, those attending were a lot of older people, who were themselves survivors, or directly affected by the Holocaust. Now, we see younger people, the children of survivors, or the grandchildren, and even people with no connection to the Holocaust who want to learn more.

It’s always been an interfaith celebration, as evidenced by the fact that it’s held at First Church.

Q: Why is it important for all people to attend?

A: Because a primary focus of all Holocaust commemorations is the phrase, “Never again.” There should never be another Holocaust, as we know it, but more importantly, there should be no Holocaust of any sort. We continue to see these, where people are targeted for their religion, or race, or tribal affiliations.

It’s designed to raise peoples consciousness. The Holocaust is not simply a historical event, but one that provides a lesson for the future. This Holocaust commemoration has always done, we’ve always talked about, the need to make sure there is not another Holocaust, and guard against them.

It’s really a consciousness-raising event. It’s the premier Holocaust Commemoration, as far as I’m concerned, primarily because of the fact that it’s such as diverse group of people who attend and make up our committee. The committee has always been very diverse, that’s what contributes to the strength of this event. I think that’s why people support this event. They understand the need for this interfaith event. And the Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish community, although they suffered the most.

Q: How is the speaker chosen?

A: Usually what happens is there are a few names people bring to the table. Another consideration is who is readily available, or the person who the committee thinks will be the most relevant. Historically, the person is often a survivor. This one, and the last three, speaker wasn’t a survivor, but that was specifically by design. There also are fewer and fewer survivors. Those who are still alive sometimes are not capable or good speakers.

Last year, it was Bishop Frank Caggiano. He was suggested because some of us heard him speak. This year’s speaker was suggested by committee member Ellen Umansky, the director of the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University.

Q: Why was this year’s speaker chosen?

A: His story is particularly relevant and timely. He was part of an expedition last summer that is related to the topic he is going to talk about.

He said what he would like to talk about happened last summer. He and his group went to Lithuania, to a site called Polnar. Polnar was a killing site. The Nazis took about 100,000 Jews and non-Jews, but primarily Jews were killed in these pits and they were buried there. When the Russian Army was on the border of Lithuania, poised to go in and take it back, the Nazis became concerned they would discover what had been done at Ponar. So, they rounded up 80 Jews and took them to the site, and required them to exhume all the bodies and burn them.

Needless to say, it was a horrible experience for all of them, but for some it was particularly horrible because they were digging up the bodies of family members and friends.

This group of 80 was brought there to exhume and burn all these bodies — they knew when it was all done, they would be the last to die. There was one engineer in the group who said, “We have to figure a way to get out of here. We have to build a tunnel.” Indeed, they dig a tunnel, using nothing but the crudest of instruments. They didn’t have shovels, they had spoons. They dug for two months, and they completed the tunnel and planned their escape for Passover, which we are now observing at this moment.

One night during Passover, they escaped through the tunnel, but as they reached the woods, the Nazis on patrol heard them. They killed all but 12. There were 12 survivors who ultimately told their story, though I don’t know when. Many Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about it for a long time. But they spoke about it, and the existence of the tunnel became known, but it was never verified.

This group went to Polnar last summer to see if they could confirm the existence of the tunnel, without digging up or disturbing the remains.

From our standpoint, the reason the committee found that compelling and wanted him to speak, this really fits in with the message of the committee, which is to not only remember the Holocaust, but make it relevant to today.

“They’re using science to confirm the stories that were heard about the Holocaust. I think it is critically important.

greilly@ctpost.com; @GreillyPost