Stuart Rabner, the chief justice of New Jersey’s State Supreme Court, honored Holocaust survivors, including his mother, at an April 9 memorial observance at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station.
Rabner, a Caldwell resident, introduced his mother, Stella, who survived for more that six years in a slave labor camp.
“What you hear may leave you angry, may leave you sad when you contemplate the inhumanity that people are capable of on a scale previously unknown,” said Stuart Rabner. “And yet I hope you come away with a little bit of a smile as well, because it will give you the opportunity to appreciate the inner strength, the determination, the resiliency that survivors embody.”
His mother, Stella Rabner, who lives in Passaic, then spoke with a quiet emotional passion about living through hard years of cold and hunger as a forced laborer in Stalinist Siberia.
Her talk, in the Ward Dining Room at the campus’s Saint Joseph Hall, was the second event of a four-day remembrance of the Holocaust.
For the Rabner family, observance of Yom Hashoa (which fell on April 8 this year) has a deep personal significance, which they shared with the audience at the Catholic college.
At a commemoration the evening before, Stuart’s wife, Dr. Deborah Rabner, introduced her mother, Sarah Wiener, who then described her experiences surviving the Holocaust in Poland.
Stuart’s brother, Howard, chief operating and financial officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and a West Caldwell resident, delivered opening remarks at the April 8 event.
In her talk, Stella Rabner related how an older sister was taken away to Auschwitz from her family’s home in Dziedzice, Poland. The teenage Stella and her parents managed to stay behind while she recovered from scarlet fever.
They hid in bunkers and basements, surviving the Nazis but not the Soviet troops who loaded them in a cattle car bound for a Siberian labor camp. They were fed only bread and soup and were under-dressed for the ice-cold winters. They were forced to work seven days a week.
“People were dying from the freezing temperatures, from hunger, and they were committing suicide,” she said. “They felt, ‘We will never get out of here.’”
Stella said she was determined to survive. Each day she hiked more than five miles into a forest, where she was assigned to chop down trees.
“We stood in mud and water up to our knees,” she recalled. “After a week I said to my mom and dad, ‘I’m not going anymore, whatever they will do to me.’”
At first camp officials responded to her defiance by cutting her meager food allowance. But they relented, and she was reassigned to counting logs as they were loaded into trucks. When a new commandant took over, Stella made friends with his teenage daughter and was given a less strenuous job doing office work.
Later, the Soviet secret police asked her to spy on fellow Jews. She resisted once again.
Even after the war, she and her parents remained in the camp because her mother was too ill to travel. In 1947, they were reunited with her brother.
“I don’t want to go into the details,” she said. “It was nothing more than a crying period.” In addition to the sister who had perished at Auschwitz, they counted 40 family members who did not survive the Shoa.
“For the longest time I felt guilty,” she confided. “If I hadn’t been sick with scarlet fever, maybe she would have stayed with us.”
Years later, someone told her if she had not been sick, she might well have been murdered at Auschwitz, too.
“Well, maybe,” she said.
Harriet Sepinwall, founding codirector of CSE’s Holocaust Education Resource Center, thanked the participants in an e-mail to NJJN.
“Hearing them speak strengthened our resolve to involve survivors in our programs for as long as this will be possible,” she wrote.