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Utahns mark annual U.S. Holocaust Remembrance Day

SALT LAKE CITY — Gabi Cheng, a slightly built eighth-grader with close-cropped dark hair and strong Asian features, stood before a few hundred people and read his sonnet honoring Holocaust rescuer Andree Geulen.

"Andree! Though you yourself were not a Jew,

You saved a lot of Jewish kids (like me)

Because you loved the kids all equally …"

Geulen was a young Belgian schoolteacher who saved hundreds of Jewish children by hiding them and moving them into Christian families and monasteries.

Cheng's poem won the Utah Holocaust Literary Contest for students in seventh through ninth grade, which he read Thursday at the I.J. and Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center to mark Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day.

His appreciative audience included former U.S. Ambassador John Price, Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, as well as a handful of Holocaust survivors, witnesses or liberators.

Price is among those.

Born Hans Joachim Praijs in 1933, the Utah businessman, philanthropist, and former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros recounted how his family survived the night of Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht, or "the night of broken glass."

Price was 5. His father owned the businesses below the family's apartment. On Nov. 9 throughout Germany, thousands of Nazi soldiers and party members attacked and arrested Jews, smashed windows and ransacked Jewish-owned stores and burned synagogues. Some 30,000 Jews were taken away to concentration camps.

"It was frightening," Price said. "We were upstairs above father's shops and we could hear the roaring noise of the crowd throughout the night."

A few months later, his family stowed aboard a banana freighter at Bremerhaven, Germany, that would take them to Panama.

"We hid in the hold below," Price told the audience. "It smelled of stale bananas. There were four in our family, and then there were another four."

The ship would become the last to carry Jewish refugees out of Nazi Germany from the North Sea port.

Price paused as his voice cracked with emotion: "There were eight of us in this boat." He paused again. "… a boat that could have held a hundred people."

To avoid other holocausts, we must develop more understanding of other people's beliefs, Price said.

Bell posed the question, how could such horrors happen — "how we literally go off the rails of humanity." Civilization and law are very tenuous, he said, and rely on "obedience to the unenforceable," simple things such as decency, or "something so prosaic as kindness," he said.

In 1980, Congress created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council with the mandate to lead the nation in an eight-day long "Days of Remembrance," which includes Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The day begins at sunset on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, and ends at sunset the next day. It is connected with Israel's Holocaust observance, Yom HaShoah, and coincides with some of the worst of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Gabi Cheng takes his Jewish faith seriously, said his mother, Maeera Shreiber, a University of Utah English professor from Los Angeles. His father, Vincent Cheng, also an English professor, is originally from Taiwan.

The eighth-grader's poem "To Andree Geulen" ends:

"You inspire me, you make me want to say

That I too might have been up to the task:

If it were me, could I have done the same?"

When asked later, Gabi Cheng answered his own question: "I don't think I can. I don't think I have the courage. I don't think I would risk my life."

Did his mother agree? "No," Shreiber said. "He would struggle. But you would never know until you were in that situation."