At the onset of World War II, Helena Flaum, 12 at the time, lived in Rawa-Ruska, Poland, not far from the Ukrainian border. After Germany invaded, she moved into the town’s ghetto until the Nazis began transporting Jews to concentration camps.
Thanks to her father’s friend who worked in the Ministry of Labor, she avoided that fate. “His niece had died and I was about the same age, so he gave me her birth certificate,” she said.
“I was sent, along with many Polish-Christian girls, to do forced labor in Germany. My parents and the rest of my family stayed behind and perished.”
Flaum, a Farmingdale resident who turns 90 in May, told her story at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day event on Jan. 30, sponsored by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. It featured a panel discussion on the nature of forgiveness, and a tribute to the late Seymour “Sy” Siegler, who co-founded Chhange in 1979 with Jack Needle.
The program, attended by nearly 100 people, also included a dramatic reading, written by Siegler and Needle, which was adapted from Simon Wiesenthal’s book, “The Sunflower.” The selection was performed by Needle, of Middletown, with Sherri West, of Manasquan, and other volunteers.
“Such a challenging reading is relevant not only for a commemoration like this, but for any occasion where ethics and morality are being discussed,” Needle said. “It was the genius of my dear friend, Sy Siegler, to recognize that.”
In the reading, a wounded German soldier at a concentration camp hospital is aware that he is dying and seeks to be forgiven by a Jew for all the atrocities he joined and witnessed. A Jewish prisoner is brought to him, listens to his story, says nothing, and leaves. Back in the barracks he asks his fellow prisoners, “What should I have done?”
The subject of when, how, and if to forgive remains relevant to survivors and their descendants.
“My grandmother believed forgiving allows you to be a good person” said Flaum, who was one of the survivors on the panel which was comprised of another survivor and two adult children of survivors. “It doesn’t mean you forget the wrong, but that you give up the bitterness that might otherwise ruin the rest of your life.”
Panelist Paul Fried of Manalapan, a son of a survivor, said he struggles with the concept of forgiveness.
“Many of my relatives were killed, including all my grandparents — I grew up without grandparents,” he said. “My mother, who spent time at Auschwitz, Venusberg, Bergen-Belsen, and Mauthausen suffered from terrible nightmares throughout her life.
“I’ve thought about what it would take to forgive. If you’re in an automobile accident —even if you’re injured — I could see forgiveness as a possibility. Unlike an accident, the Holocaust was deliberate. It was planned. It was intentional murder of millions, including babies, the infirm, and elderly. And it was done for no other reason than ethnic hatred. That’s hard to forgive.”
Said moderator Jane Robins Denny, Chhange’s director of education, “I suspect no one will walk away believing there is a single or simple answer.”
Audience member Myrna Raskin, of Long Branch, called the program “thought provoking” and said the reading challenged her opinion on forgiveness.
Siegler died in October at the age of 83. He was an educator for more than four decades, first at Red Bank High School and later as a professor of psychology at Brookdale Community College. He was the United Synagogue Youth advisor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson for more than 20 years.
“I was lucky to have both Mr. Siegler and Mr. Needle as teachers when I was in high school and Hebrew school,” said Denny. “They were enormous inspirational influences. I always kept in touch, and they were excellent resources for my students during the 35 years I taught at the Rumson Country Day School.”
Dale Daniels, executive director of Chhange for 16 years, described Siegler as “a brilliant teacher, a warm and engaging gentleman who had kind words for everyone and loved to teach about the Holocaust, a topic that fascinated him.”
In her conversation with NJJN, Daniels added the late Norma Klein to the list of Chhange founders. Klein was the dean of community service at Brookdale, and without her support of the organization’s early events and her lobbying the college administration, the Holocaust education center may not have become the institution it is today, Daniels said.
Borrowing a metaphor from Siegler to describe the work of Chhange, Daniels said, “Each time we touch one individual with our lessons about the Holocaust, it moves on, from person to person, sending out ripples, just like a pebble in a pond.
“That was true for Sy, too. He literally touched thousands of people with his wisdom, his kindness, and his commitment to social justice.”