More than three decades ago, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel member Gayle Speizer led the effort to organize an Idaho observance of Holocaust Remembrance. In 1982, then-Idaho Gov. John Evans signed a proclamation establishing the first statewide observance. An annual ceremony has taken place ever since. Similar ceremonies take place in communities across the country.
This year, Idahoans will pause for Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance, from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, in the Lincoln Auditorium at the Idaho State Capitol. This year’s ceremony will include proclamations, a candle lighting, music from local choral groups and the reading of the winning essay from The Wilma Landman Loeb Holocaust Remembrance essay contest.
The ceremony will honor a World War II veteran and POW, Russell Biaggne. Born in New Orleans in 1923, Biaggne was drafted by the U.S. Army Flying Corps in 1942 and trained at Gowen Field. He served as a bottom turret gunner on the famous plane known as “Gidi Gidi Boom Boom,” which flew 47 missions, bombing oil fields in Bulgaria that supported the German war effort. His plane was shot down and Biaggne spent five months in a Bulgarian Nazi POW camp. After his discharge in 1945, Biaggne returned to Idaho and spent his post-military career working for Idaho Power. He and his late wife, Marie, had four children, eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Biaggne’s son, who is also named Russell, said his father, who is now 93, is living at the Idaho State Veterans Home at the memory loss center. If he is well enough, he will join his family at the ceremony. His son said his father will wear his World War II dress uniform.
Russell Biaggne Jr. said that like a lot of World War II veterans, his father was reticent when it came to talking about his experiences as a soldier.
“Growing up, I didn’t know he had been in the war, much less a hero in the war,” said Biaggne.
He remembers a visit to St. Louis when he was a teenager. He and his father were walking up a long flight of stairs when a man at the top of the stairs spotted them.
“The man sunk to his knees, sobbing, ‘the bambino, the bambino,’” calling his father by his wartime nickname, said Biaggne.
Slowly, the story of his father’s war years came out, particularly as time when by and Biaggne attended reunions with his fellow airmen. One reunion included Bulgarians whom the Nazis had forced to work as prison guards.