NEW YORK – Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the synagogue choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim performed at the United Nations’ Holocaust memorial ceremony on Jan. 27 in New York, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the day designated by the UN for international commemoration of the victims since 2005.
The 12-member, all-male choir was conducted by Shaar Hashomayim’s music director Roi Azoulay.
“It’s an important honour for us in Montreal, which we know has one of the largest survivor communities in the world,” said Zelermyer, a native of Connecticut.
“For me personally, my family is from Holland, and at least 50 of my relatives were killed in the Holocaust. It is a privilege to honour their memory in this way.”
He added: “And Roi Azoulay comes from Strasbourg [France], another community deeply affected by the Holocaust.”
Zelermyer said he was approached by a UN representative after he performed at a concert in New York and was invited to sing at the next Holocaust commemoration.
“Two of my closest friends are cantors in New York who had sung [at the event] in previous years, [but] they had never had a choir, as well as a cantor, at the event,” he said.
“I insisted that what made music at the Shaar so special was the collaboration between the choir and myself, and [the UN] agreed.”
They were not only the first synagogue choir, but also the first Canadians to participate in the event, held annually at the UN General Assembly.
They performed Ani Ma’amin and Kel Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer.
The ceremony included remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a keynote address by Beate Klarsfeld of Germany, a long-time advocate for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, as well as personal testimonies by two Holocaust survivors.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point Jewish Chapel Choir also sang.
Shaar Hashomayim, established in 1846, has a strong musicial tradition. It has had a male choir, today professional, dating back to 1887.
Zelermyer, a graduate of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, has performed around the world as a soloist. He and the choir have toured North America and the United Kingdom, and their series of recordings, The Music of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, has received critical acclaim.
Azoulay, who was previously music director of Strasbourg’s Great Synagogue Choir, was born and raised in Dimona, Israel, the son of Moroccan immigrants. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.
Zelermyer added: “The UN is clearly one of the important forums in the world for major world issues and it is appropriate that this calamitous event is commemorated there.”
The UN invitation is also a fitting follow-up to the synagogue’s production of Sacred Echoes this past November in commemoration of Kristallnacht.
This multimedia cantata, featuring two cantors, an orchestra, children’s choir and narration, is a tribute to the German Jewish liturgical repertoire.
In Montreal on Jan. 27, close to 600 high schools students heard Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences during an educational program held at the Grande Bibliothèque and sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation.
Paris native Marguerite Elias Quddus, who was hidden as a child in farms and convents over three years, addressed the French session.
The English speaker was Hungarian-born Leslie Vertes, who endured time in both Nazi and Soviet labour camps.
Both are among the 42 survivors living in Canada who have had their books published by the Azrieli Foundation over the past decade.