The operating word at Thursday night’s annual Kristallnacht remembrance in Keene was “choose” — “We choose to remember,” community leaders said.

But just passively remembering, or going through the motions of paying respect to the millions killed during the Holocaust — which started in earnest with Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” 81 years ago on Nov. 9, 1938 — will no longer suffice, each speaker stressed.

Silence, candlelight and more silence gave attendees ample time to think of instances where they could make a difference, or could have made a difference but fell short.

Driving home the parallels that illustrate why understanding genocides like the Holocaust remains crucial today, the story of one survivor anchored the evening.

Stephan Lewy, who was born in Berlin in 1925, was honored during the ceremony at The Colonial Theatre, but was unable to travel to Keene for the occasion.

Appearing via video recording, Lewy captivated the audience as he told of his journey and that of his fellow “Ritchie Boys.”

Lewy, who lived in New Hampshire for years and now resides with family in Buffalo, N.Y., was given the French Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor) in 2014 at the Statehouse in Concord — the highest honor for any civilian or military official.

He was 13 and living at the Auerbach Orphanage for Jewish children in Germany during Kristallnacht, when Nazis carried out a near-nationwide burning and pillaging of synagogues, businesses and other Jewish institutions. Many Jewish people were also murdered during the violence in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, and thousands were sent to concentration camps.

That night, Nazis forced the orphanage’s children into a synagogue with a severed gas line, locking them inside, according to a bio about Lewy available through the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo. The children survived by breaking windows.

“The fresh air saved us,” Lewy recalled.

His father and stepmother scrambled to find safe passage to the United States, a process complicated when his father failed a medical exam required for a visa, and Lewy ended up in France via the Kindertransport, according to his bio.

Miraculously, he was reunited with his parents some three years later in the U.S. after leaving fascist Vichy France. He ended up returning to Europe, however, to fight the Nazis in World War II.

Due to immigration restrictions in America at the time, serving in the military was the best way for Lewy and many other refugees of the Holocaust to have a shot at a new life stateside.

Lewy was part of a special intelligence unit trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland, hence the “Ritchie Boys” nickname. The group of predominately Jewish immigrants used their native German to collect well over half of all battlefield intelligence gathered by the Allied Forces during WWII, according to author Bruce Henderson in his book “Sons and Soldiers.”

Despite all the Nazis had done to their friends and extended families, Lewy and his unit refrained from using torture, according to a documentary excerpt shown Thursday, and instead extracted information from captured German soldiers on their way to saving countless lives.

After the war, Lewy started a family, and continues speaking out about his experience.

Several community leaders gave prepared remarks Thursday, culminating in the candle-lighting ceremony after Keene Mayor Kendall Lane, Fire Chief Mark Howard, Police Chief Steven Russo and others pledged to keep the Elm City welcoming and inclusive.

There was also a dance presentation from MoCo Arts students, with choreography by Tracy Grissom depicting a struggle between an in-group and an out-group, ultimately leading the audience to examine their own judgments and willingness to help someone in humiliation and despair.

Several basic facts from the 1930s rang eerily true when juxtaposed with the headwinds of American politics in 2019.

Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach at Keene State’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, drew parallels from simple recurring phrases such as “America First,” a slogan of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.

Building on the ethos of the Cohen Center, White emphasized that genocides are a “process, not an event,” encouraging members of the audience to engage in introspection.

“Tonight, as we hear from the 1930s, we must wrestle with the question: Who do we want to be?” White said.

The urge for self interrogation was palpable at several points Thursday night, such as when Kati Preston came up to the microphone to light a candle, thanking a Hungarian woman who let her hide in her barn as a five-year-old, saving her from the Nazis.

“She was a simple peasant girl, and she hid me in her barn, and risked her own life to save me,” Preston said.

At the commemoration’s close, the audience was encouraged to leave the theater in silence.

When the cellphones came back on and the lobby cleared out, the candles remained lit.

This article has been altered to correct Tom White's title at the Cohen Center.

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut.