A memory of an incident that occurred near his boyhood home in Nuremberg, Germany still haunts William Freund.
“I was chased down a street by a gang of boys shouting, ‘Jewish pig,’” Freund, 80, told NJJN. “When they caught me, they shut me in a wooden crate that was used to store sand for slippery winter streets. The lid was too heavy for me to lift. I banged on the lid frantically until a passerby helped me escape. I never got over the trauma.”
There were other, albeit subtler, indications that he and other Jews were not welcome in his native city. “Nuremberg was a center of early Nazism, and I never felt safe on the streets,” he said.
But Freund has returned to Nuremberg and other parts of Germany “many times” since his family departed for America, sometimes bringing his three children and their families, including five grandchildren, along to see where he spent his early years.
One visit was to a cemetery in the town of Kleinwallstadt, where several generations of his ancestors were buried. “What I found was metal had been stolen and tombstones turned over,” he said. Freund paid for restoration of the gravesites of his family members.
A resident of Chatham, Freund is a member of Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit JCC and a retired chief economist at the New York Stock Exchange.
Last spring, the chief archivist of the Jewish Museum Berlin read an obituary for Freund’s wife, Judith Steinberger Freund, who died in 2010. The archivist tracked down their daughter, Nancy Freund Heller, who conveyed to her father a request to address high school students about his experiences as a boy under the Nazi regime. Freund said he never imagined he would receive an official invitation to speak about his painful childhood memories to young Germans, but he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t afford to pass up.
“Since I am 90 years old,” he said, “I thought, ‘I better do it now.’ Who knows how much longer I can do this?”
So in June, accompanied by Nancy, Freund traveled to Germany. Because Holocaust education is mandatory in Germany schools, Freund knew that the students he would address — in three high school classes over three days, with each session lasting more than three hours — were all aware of the atrocities of the Nazi era.
What surprised him about the teens he met was that none had heard about the Holocaust from their parents or grandparents. To the students, “six million murdered Jews and millions of other victims seem to have been just data points, abstract numbers that don’t spark an emotional reaction,” he said. The students seemed to view Hitler as “just a character from a history book, like Napoleon or Otto von Bismarck.”
Freund set out to humanize what the young people had considered merely historical facts and figures. He spoke about his family, which had lived in Germany for 500 years and whose members thought of themselves as totally German; he spoke of what he called “long-standing Jew-hatred” in Germany; of the raucous Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg, and of the Nuremberg laws enacted in 1935 that stripped Jews of their rights and citizenship.
He told the students about an aunt and cousin who were murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and about an uncle who had lost a leg in World War I fighting in the German army and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. “He was sure he would not be imprisoned by the Nazis,” said Freund. “Luckily, that uncle left for Palestine,” rather than test that theory.
But Freund, who came to New York with his parents and sister in 1937, told NJJN, “I don’t consider myself a survivor. In my own mind, if you left Germany before Kristallnacht in November of 1938, you were not a survivor.”
Still, he is determined to keep telling his traumatic story through additional speaking engagements.
“It is my duty to keep alive the memory of when Germany descended into darkness,” he said. “Younger generations need to be aware of what happened, because only that kind of awareness can prevent its recurrence.”
Mindful of the rapidly decreasing number of survivors like Freund, the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ is redoubling efforts to make sure the bitter memories and stories of suffering and survival are passed on to future generations, within and outside the Jewish community.
A stark statistic concerns council director Barbara Wind and others dedicated to preserving the testimony of eyewitnesses to the atrocities of the Nazi era. According to Lawrence Glaser, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, six years ago the commission was aware of some 5,000 survivors in the state. By January of 2016, the list had diminished to 1,384, “and without being able to give you a specific number,” he said to NJJN, “it can only be lower than that at this point.”
Wind said she has no definitive count of survivors in the Greater MetroWest area. “The numbers fluctuate, not only because survivors die but because as they age, many move [from other locations] to Greater MetroWest to be near their kids,” she told NJJN, referring to the catchment area of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, consisting, chiefly, of Essex, Morris, and Union counties.
In addition, Wind noted, there is most likely an uncounted population of survivors whom she is unaware of and who may have never discussed the horrors they endured during the war. “We work only with the survivors who are able and willing to speak and be engaged in our programs and projects,” she said.
Determined to keep their stories alive, Wind is adding multi-media presentations to already existing exhibits, “lunch and learn” programs, bar and bat mitzvah projects, and twinning initiatives that link survivors with teenagers.
The first multi-media effort was a screening of the documentary, “Unconquered Souls.” It is the story of Anitta Boyko Fox, a survivor from Hillside, who fled with her parents to New York from her hometown of Vienna after the Nazi rampage of Kristallnacht in November 1938.
The film, directed by Joe Schreiber, made its debut in November 2015. It was financed by the Creative Media Collaborative, the council’s documentary unit, with part of a 10-year, $500,000 grant from the Darivoff Family Foundation.
Another recent documentary came from the pairing of a Livingston teenager, Howard Goldberg, with survivor Fred Heyman of Morristown. It resulted in Goldberg serving as executive producer of “Be an Upstander,” about Heyman’s life and his message to stand up for, rather than stand by idly, when someone is under attack.
Another video presentation in the pipeline, “The Best Revenge,” takes a look at children of survivors who have overcome trauma and led lives of social consciousness and philanthropy.
A theatrical venture called “Shoah Stories on Stage” has partnered the council with the Jewish Plays Project of New York to create new presentations and dramatic readings about survivors. Each staging of these new productions will reach 200-300 audience members, involve six-to-10 local artists and survivors, and use newly crafted educational materials.
As time passes and the population of eyewitnesses wanes, Wind is determined to make intergenerational contact frequent and meaningful.
“Each meeting between survivors and students — and there are thousands annually — has its own ripple effect,” she said.
“Each student who tells about what he or she heard and learned from an eyewitness to the Holocaust — be it to a friend, a family member, or a large audience — is a transmitter. And each of these ripples we hear about inspires us to continue to create meaningful ways to keep the story of the Holocaust alive.”