Six candles were lit inside the offices of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz Thursday, a candle for every million Jews put to death as part of the Holocaust. But those taking part in the annual solemn ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day pointed out that it wasn't only Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, and that many ethnic minorities worldwide - and in America - are still being subjected to hate.
As part of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Poloncarz and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown united to read a joint proclamation marking April 8 to 15 as "Days of Remembrance for the Victims of the Nazi Holocaust" locally.
Pieter Weinrieb, president of the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, led the ceremony and urged the public to prevent letting the Holocaust "become a distant memory." While the candles lit as part of the ceremony commemorated the Jewish victims of the Nazis, Weinrieb acknowledged millions of others deemed undesirable by Hitler's regime were also systematically put to death.
He also warned that instances of hate and bigotry are increasing.
"This past year we have seen the highest rate of anti-Semitism since 1994," Weinrieb said. "There is a 10 percent rise in hate crimes since 2014, committed in the United States with African-Americans, Jews and Muslims targeted in many of these incidents.
"Since we last met a year ago, we have witnessed Charlottesville and, locally, Windermere (Elementary School) in Amherst, where anti-Semitic and racist vandalism was found on school playgrounds."
Earlier in 2017, vandals left anti-Semitic and racist graffiti on cars and bridges in Orchard Park.
Poloncarz's grandfather's cousin was a Polish Catholic who died in a concentration camp, one of the many millions of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The county executive expressed his concern for growing white nationalism worldwide, including European nations such as Poland and Hungary. But he also noted that when racist incidents such as the graffiti struck the local community, the public expressed its outrage.
"We will continue to fight it locally," he said. "I'm proud to live in a community that says no, we're not going to allow this. We are going to stand up."
As the candles were being lit, passages were read honoring some of the heroes of the Holocaust, those who risked their own lives to save Jewish lives from would-be Nazi captors.
"This is one of the darkest chapters in world history and it's important that we never forget. But it's also important to recognize those courageous individuals at that time who stood against hate," Mayor Brown said.
A Yom HaShoah commemoration will be held Sunday morning, beginning at 10:30, at Temple Beth Tzedek on Getzville Road in Amherst.