Paige Klein, 13, interlocked arms then hands with her mother as she listened tearfully to the story of a Holocaust survivor who begged and bartered to avoid starvation as a 19-year-old forced laborer.
Sandor Vandor -- that 19 year old, now an 88-year-old retired mechanical engineer who lives in Ventura -- spoke to a congregation of dozens Sunday at Congregation B'nai Jacob to commemorate Yom HaShoah, a nationally celebrated Holocaust Remembrance Day.
He was forced to join the Hungarian Army in May 1944 and worked in labor camps through 1945 in a small village in Austria called Sankt Anna am Aigen. Vandor dug defensive trenches for German soldiers, moving enough dirt for about 3 yards of space each day.
He said given two meager meals a day -- dark, warm liquid and about 4 ounces of bread for breakfast and grey, warm liquid for dinner -- he dropped from about 135 pounds to 90 pounds.
Others starved to death, and more would have if not for the generosity of strangers.
Vandor said that generosity could mean death for the townspeople who were prohibited from giving food to Jewish laborers. Still, he remembers a woman who pulled him into her home to make him an egg sandwich and a maid who threw apples to laborers.
His mother was murdered; his family broken apart. But Vandor survived.
"My life was saved by the people of St. Anna," he said.
Vandor would later marry, to Anna, whose mother and grandparents were gassed to death.
"She had no family. I had no family. And we created our own family," he said.
Dozens of attendees lit candles, sang refrains and prayed in remembrance of the approximately 6 million Jews killed and other survivors like Vandor in Nazi and German- controlled territories from 1933 to 1945. Attendees walked through a display of historical accounts and listened as Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall declared April 27- May 4 days to remember the victims.
Cheryl Rosenstein, rabbi of Temple Beth El, said Yom HaShoah is also as much a day to remember the survivors as the victims. She said the first-hand accounts of the concentration camps, forced labor and murder that characterizes the period of genocide known as the Holocaust are essential to efforts to educate the larger community.
"History repeats itself," she said. "Unless we learn its lessons, we can't correct it."
For attendees, that purpose was in part fulfilled.
Larry Saslaw, a member of Temple Beth El, said for a while he thought the grief of the Holocaust was something to get past in order to focus on eradicating genocide; but Sunday's event changed his philosophy.
He said the grief is an important part of the reality of genocide.
"We have an obligation that it shouldn't happen again," Saslaw said.
Paige, an eighth-grader at Fruitvale Junior High School, said Vandor's story helped bring to life what she is studying about the Holocaust.
"You read about it, and you know what you think you feel," Paige said.
But nothing compares to hearing the story from the person who lived it, she added.