When Molly Cohen was a sixth-grader at Cedar Drive Middle School in Colts Neck, a classmate seated next to her began to draw a border of swastikas across her notebook. Molly asked her to stop, but the girl refused.
Two years after the first incident, another classmate shaped a swastika out of clay, holding it in front of her face in a hostile way.
Now a ninth-grader at Freehold Township High School, Molly spoke about her experiences with anti-Semitism and her quest to help educate students about intolerance at special luncheons — held May 21 and 22 at Brookdale Community College — for Holocaust survivors and seventh-graders from the Cedar Drive school.
About 180 seventh-grade students participated in the programs, held at the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education (Chhange) on the Lincroft campus. In a reprise of a program begun last year, they heard Molly’s tale as well as testimony from the survivors.
Molly is the daughter of Shara and Howard Cohen of Colts Neck; the family belongs to Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls.
In her talk, Molly explained that she and her family connected with Chhange soon after the first incident. Prior to her bat mitzva, she met with survivor Helena Flaum of Farmingdale, who, she said, gave her valuable tools to prepare her to confront incidents of intolerance.
“She told me that we can forgive, but we must never forget,” Molly told the students. “I remembered Helena telling me to fight for who I am, and that’s exactly what I did the second time I faced anti-Semitism. I told him how unacceptable his behavior was, and I immediately discussed it with school staff.”
The events, however, really took a toll on her, Molly said.
“I knew I needed to take something very negative and turn it into something positive, which is why I am here today. If we can educate one person at a time, and they in turn educate others, we may get closer to conquering ignorance and hatred,” she said.
At the Chhange luncheons, Molly spoke about how vulnerable and victimized she had felt. Her story astonished many of the Cedar Drive students.
“I’m really surprised that it actually still happens today in our community,” said Matthew Kumke, 13. “I wouldn’t know how to handle that situation if it happened to me.”
“I’m surprised this would go on in our school district,” said Ava Zockoll, 12. “Our school is not an environment where that should happen.”
After Molly’s presentation, the students shared a meal with 14 Holocaust survivors and listened to their stories. As survivor Gizella Mann of Marlboro shared her history with a students around the table, she began to weep over her mournful memories. Many of the students broke into tears with her.
“I was 14 when I was taken from my home in Hungary to Auschwitz,” Mann said. “I lost two of my siblings, and was separated in the camps from my childhood friend and soul mate. I couldn’t even share my problems with my best friend because I was chosen to work, and she was chosen to die.”
Hearing first-hand experiences was not at all like reading about the Holocaust in social studies class, said Amanda Iacono, 13. “When Mrs. Mann was talking about losing her family and her best friend, I felt really sad. I can’t imagine how she must have felt,” she said. “Hearing it from her personal perspective is much more meaningful.”
Students were also visibly moved by the story of survivor Ruth Rosenfeld of Interlaken. Rosenfeld described how her idyllic childhood came to a halt when the Nazis invaded Poland. She recounted to the students how she hid in a wooden barrel filled with poppy seeds when Nazis searched the house of the Christian woman who was sheltering her.
“I remember curling up into a small ball, my heart pounding, and my throat closing with fear as Nazis poked their rifles through the barrel,” Rosenfeld told the students.
She also described the fateful train ride as her family tried to escape to Czechoslovakia. A Nazi convoy searched the train, recognized her father as a Jew, and took him off the train; he was shot and killed.
“I was really upset to hear how her father had to die right by her,” said Nick Goranites, 13. “It’s so horrible I really can’t imagine something like that.”
Sharing survival stories is painfully important, said Talia Gelfer of Toms River. “We are the last of the survivors. I find it more important as I get older,” she said. “One day maybe someone will try to tell these kids that the Holocaust didn’t happen. They can say, ‘Yes, it did, because I met a survivor.’”
Other survivors who participated in the two-day program included Judith Meisels of Deal; Stephen Melnick, Jackson; Dr. Eugene Gottlieb, East Brunswick; Ruth Gottlieb, East Brunswick; Manfred Lindenbaum, Jackson; Gerard Blumenthal, Manalapan; Eva Wiener, Neptune; Claire Boren, Rumson; Lidia Siciarz, Little Silver; and Alex Treiber, Marlboro.