AUGUSTA — The Messalonskee High School Mastersingers performed for more than 200 people as part of the Holocaust Remembrance Day program at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine Sunday afternoon.

The group of nearly 40 singers performed eight “Songs of Darkness and Hope” which were sung by Jews during the Holocaust, including Ani Ma’amin, known to have been sung by dozens of Jews as they were marched to the gas chambers in Nazi death camps. The students worked on the project for nearly a year in preparation for their Yom HaShoah performances.

“This project had an enormous impact on not only the students but also the community that was fortunate enough to experience it,” said Kevin Rhein, who directs the mastersingers with his wife Pamela. “We received so many comments about the depth of the experience for all involved.”

Liz Helitzer, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, who served as cantor for the afternoon’s program, said the performance by the mastersingers was so “amazing because they wanted it to be around the history of the music.”

“They had me come and do workshops with all the students who participated so that they understood just a little bit more about what the Holocaust was,” Helitzer said, “and what it was about and why this music is important.”

Rhein said music is so often used just for entertainment, but it is better when it is balanced by the art.

“The power of music is what can connect these experiences for the students in a way that will impact them the rest of their lives,” Rhein said.

The program began with Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, reading the joint resolution he presented on the house floor in Augusta Friday. Hickman said the people of Maine should remember the horrors of the Nazis so that they are never repeated.

“Bigotry provides a breeding ground for tyranny to flourish,” he said. “We remember the Holocaust because we must never forget.”

The interfaith service included several readings by two Augusta-based religious leaders, Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El and the Rev. Francis Morin of St. Michael Catholic Parish. Helitzer sang several songs and prayers while guests read and sang along.

One man and his wife, who did not want to give their names, said they have attended several Holocaust remembrance events over the years. They said the combination of Hickman’s words, the readings from Asch and Morin and the performance by the mastersingers made this program the best they’ve seen.

Helitzer said teaching about and remembering the Holocaust is even more important today especially because of our country’s political landscape and the amount of rhetoric and hate speech seen every day.

“We use the Holocaust and the civil rights movement as examples of how bad things can get,” Helitzer. “Those were the results of people being put into the category of ‘other’ like we have happening now.”

Helitzer said it’s sad that “we have to have the conversations of why it’s not OK to think that one group is better than another. When you start with that mentality, you end up with violence and genocide.”

Yom HaShoah, as it is known in Israel and colloquially, commemorates the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust by Nazi Germany and its allies. Congress designated an eight-day period of remembrance from May 1-May 8 in 1980.

The next exhibit at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, “Children’s Reactions to the Holocaust,” opens May 16 and runs until August 12.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

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Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ