More than 1,800 middle and high school students and educators from throughout New Jersey filled the Collins Arena in Lincroft to hear testimony from two Holocaust survivors and one of their liberators.
Buchenwald survivors Abe Chapnick of Howell and Robbie Waisman of Vancouver, Canada, along with Dr. Leon Bass, an African-American sergeant who was among the liberators who entered Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, were the guest speakers at the 20th Annual Colloquium of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College on May 12.
The half-day event also featured 40 workshops on topics related to prejudice, genocide, human rights, and activism.
“Today is a very special day for me. I am here with my friend Abe who I shared an unbreakable bond with in Buchenwald, and my hero, my liberator, my angel from heaven, Dr. Leon Bass,” Waisman told the audience. “When we first met him at the camp, we could not understand one another because we spoke different languages. I did not have the words to express my appreciation. Since then we have made up for lost time.”
Bass served in the segregated 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion of the U.S. Army. The horrors he witnessed at Buchenwald will haunt him forever, he told the audience. “It was the biggest shock of my life. I can never, ever forget what I saw there. I saw human beings who had been beaten, starved, and tortured. One man’s fingers were webbed together with infected sores. I saw piles of bodies outside the crematorium, and human remains in the ovens,” Bass said.
Survivors Waisman and Chapnick spoke about the importance of sharing their testimony of their time as teenage prisoners at Buchenwald, their rehabilitation in France, and the new lives they built in North America.
“When I am gone, you young people will represent me,” said Chapnick. “You are a reminder that all the bad things that happened to me should not happen again. If we don’t teach our children how to love, history will repeat itself.”
Waisman described his life before and after the Nazi occupation of Poland, and the loss of his family and his freedom. “I am not here to sadden you but rather to empower you. When you encounter a bully, you should have the courage to say, ‘This is not right.’ When you hear an ethnic joke, have the courage to say, ‘This is not funny.’ If you do these simple things, then sharing our pain as survivors will be rewarded,” he said.
‘Something to fight for’
Bass also spoke about his experiences in the U.S. army and the indignities he suffered due to racism. Stationed in the deep South, he was forbidden to drink from public water fountains, and was forced to buy food from back alleys behind restaurants.
In Mississippi he stood on a bus for more than 100 miles because the seats that were vacant were forbidden to him. “All the while I was dressed in the uniform of my country. I felt my own country was using me, abusing me, and putting me in harm’s way,” Bass said.
His glimpse of Buchenwald had a profound effect on him. “I had seen the face of evil, racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry. I realized now I had something to fight for,” he said.
After the war, he became an educator and school principal in Pennsylvania. The story of Bass, Waisman, and Chapnick and how they reunited after the war was told in the 2008 documentary Beyond the Fence.
New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno also spoke at the conference, stressing the importance of “witnessing, testifying, and remembering.”
“Take these lessons and use them in your everyday life,” she said. “There’s never a wrong time to start doing the right thing.”
Awards were given to the winners of the Luna Kaufman Writing and Art Contest, an annual Holocaust-themed competition. One essay winner, Lauren Cooper, a fifth-grader at the Township of Ocean Intermediate School, wrote about a family member who survived the Holocaust.
“It’s important for us to learn about what happened because it helps us recognize what’s wrong and know what to do about it. I’m Jewish and this is part of my history, so it means a lot to me,” Lauren said.
Hearing first-hand accounts from survivors left an impression on eighth-grader Rebecca Carroll from Memorial Middle School in Spotswood. “People my age can be so petty about things that really don’t mean very much,” she said. “Learning about how much people suffered puts things in perspective for me.”