It's understandable that Shiri Sandler, the United States director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, would draw inspiration from her grandmother, Gisela Adamski, who survived that notorious Nazi death camp.

"My grandmother told me she didn't want this to be my life," Sandler told Fairfield's 31st annual Holocaust Commemoration on Wednesday night. However, her grandmother "didn't want me to think about the Holocaust because I would be sad."

Yet, Gisela Adamski eventually gave her blessing to Sandler's interest in Holocaust survivors' stories, but with the proviso that her work focus beyond what happened to six million Jews who perished during the Nazis' reign of terror.

"For her, I had to make this about others as well," Sandler said. "For her, this is a human fight, not just a Jewish one."

Sandler was joined by her grandmother Wednesday at First Church Congregational, where a packed sanctuary listened to her powerful tale at the center of one of history's darkest chapters.

"I cannot describe what happened in Auschwitz -- the screaming and the beating and the yelling," Adamski said.

"They made you feel that you were not a human being," she recalled, "that you were an animal. I would not treat an animal the way they treated us."

Sandler, who began her career with the USC Shoah Foundation, works with military cadets who are training to be officers, teaching them about the Holocaust and its relevance in relation to current world events.

"This is both my work and obviously deeply personal to me," she said, regarding her grandmother's history. "I can't rebuild her past, but I can help instill it in the minds of my students."

The commemoration included a candle-lighting ceremony that featured several local Holocaust survivors, musical selections, and remarks by civic and religious leaders.

"How can we understand the enormity of these losses," Rabbi Marcelo Kormis of Congregation Beth El said in his blessing. "Help us to recall their lives and their destruction ... not only to bear witness, but to rebuild faith."