Although the Holocaust is now many decades in the past, its deep-rooted impacts are felt very much today. Many of the survivors of this most dark stain on human history — in which an estimated 6 million European Jews were persecuted and slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II — are now reaching the denouement of their lives. But families, friends and entire nations still feel the impression of what was one of the most sweeping genocides of the 20th century.

Every spring — the exact date is set for the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, which falls in April or May — people around the world take time to reflect on the atrocity, considering the atmosphere in which it arose, how to avoid a repeat, and perhaps most important, what lessons can be gleaned from it on Yom HaShoa, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, the date falls on April 11. In Israel, a siren sounds for two minutes, as people stand at silent attention in remembrance of the dead.

Several Santa Barbara-based organizations held commemorative events over the last week, including a Sunday service at Congregation B’nai B’rith and a special theatrical performance honoring The Diary of Anne Frank at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara on Thursday.

“I have always regarded the Shoah — the destructions of European Jewry by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 — as an utterly unique occurrence in world history, and have resisted any suggestions that compare the Holocaust to other genocides,” said Rabbi Steve Cohen of Congregation B’nai B’rith, noting that after hearing the story of 1994 Rwandan genocide survivor Michel Nsengiyumva, he was moved by the many similarities to the European Holocaust of the 1940s.

“There were, of course, many differences, but suddenly the similarities between the two events seemed infinitely more important than the differences. And Michel was here, in our own synagogue, asking us to help him and his friends to rebuild their culture and their country.”

The Jewish Federation has, for nearly two years now, focused on using lessons from the Holocaust to help today’s troubled youth through its Portraits of Survival program. With a robust cadre of Holocaust survivors — all now living in Santa Barbara — on hand to share their deeply moving stories, the program combines personal narratives with photographs, letters and other memorabilia in an attempt to maintain a community-wide awareness of problems that can arise through lack of understanding.

Dr. Stan Ostern, a Holocaust survivor, spent two years hiding from Nazis in an underground bunker in Poland.

Dr. Stan Ostern, a Holocaust survivor, spent two years hiding from Nazis in an underground bunker in Poland. (Leib Kopman photo)

On Thursday, the center hosted Dialogue and Diversity Through the Arts, a theatrical performance starring Sara Miller McCune as Anne Frank. The program was a collaboration of the Portraits of Survival program, the Anti Defamation League, Antioch University Santa Barbara and the Jewish Family Service of Greater Santa Barbara. A presentation of poetry by Santa Barbara poet, artist and Holocaust survivor Margaret Singer was accompanied by music, as well as readings by Antioch doctoral students.

One of the Portraits of Survival programs, Mis Tres Caras — called My Three faces in English and Shalosha Panim in Hebrew — works with at-risk Hispanic youth, encouraging them to share their personal stories — past, present and future — and relate them with one another and with the Holocaust survivors.

“The idea is to tie in with Portraits of Survival and get the community involved in issues of diversity,” said Elizabeth Wolfson, director of the Portraits of Survival program. “These kids get a chance to hear the survivors’ strories and then explain their own stories creatively through film, photography and music. It’s an intensive encounter between Holocaust survivors and at-risk youth.”

Groups of Santa Barbara’s law-enforcement officers have also visited the Portraits of Survival exhibit hearing stories such as that of Dr. Stan Ostern, who spent two years in a bunker in Poland with 34 other people, hiding from Nazi authorities. The chamber had been designed for 12 people, and he said that lacking reading materials and diversions, there was nothing for them to do in there but wait.

The Portraits of Survival exhibit is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, or by appointment at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, 524 Chapala St. Click here for more information or call 805.957.1116.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at