Three hundred sixth-graders from Lazar Middle School in Montville spent April 8 with 25 Holocaust survivors. One teacher called her students “lucky,” noting that as time passes, the moment is fast approaching that will be “the last opportunity” to hear from survivors.
The youngsters had come to the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany for the annual Holocaust Council Student/Survivor luncheon event, organized by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest.
The students visited two exhibits on the campus and heard keynote addresses from six survivors: Ed Bindel of Mountain Lakes, Gina Lanceter of Montclair, Erika Sauerhoff of Hillside, Hanna Wechsler of Woodland Park, Robert Max of Summit, and Mark Schonwetter of Livingston.
Throughout the morning, small groups of students toured “From Memory to History,” an annual display created and presented by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest that documents the experiences of survivors and liberators in the community. The exhibit was curated by council director Barbara Wind.
Each panel offers the history of a single survivor or family of survivors, from before the Holocaust through the late 20th century, using documents, photographs, and interviews.
Students also visited the campus’s Harry Wilf Holocaust Memorial, which houses a permanent exhibition of paintings by artist Aaron Gluska, and “Remembrance,” the world’s largest Steuben crystal sculpture, designed by Joel Smith.
It was not a day for fidgeting. The students listened, rapt, as Bindel shared his story of survival through the courage of his Polish-Catholic nanny, who pretended to be his mother through the war. There were no side conversations despite the large number of preteens present. When Bindel finished his story, students had more questions for him than time would allow. One student wanted to know if he could remember the feeling of being reunited with his mother at six, not having seen her since the age of three, and if he really recognized her (he responded that he does not remember because she was so quick to pick him up and cover him with kisses). He was also asked whether it was hard to get used to a new father, once the family had accepted that his had not survived and his mother remarried (sometimes, he answered, especially when his new sister was favored by her father when it came time to share treats in the post-war DP camp).
At the luncheon, the exchanges were more personal as the survivors shared their experiences, with one sitting at each table of 10 or so students. Some of the youngsters spoke among themselves but others were engaged in conversations with the survivors, from general chitchat to questions about their experiences.
Kristi Viscardo, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, recalls having a similar experience when she was in middle school in Rockaway and a survivor came to address her class. “When I was in middle school, I didn’t really understand what was happening. But looking back, I think, ‘wow.’” She added, “These kids are so lucky. They probably don’t realize this may be the last opportunity to hear from survivors. I don’t think they understand how lucky they are. Maybe their own younger siblings won’t have this opportunity,” she said.
The importance of the day was not lost on the students. One, Sicilia LoGalbo, appreciated hearing from the survivors. Although she and the other students spend plenty of time learning about the Holocaust, she said, “it’s hard to just read about the Holocaust and not know what people had to go through. It’s heartbreaking to have had to go through all these things they did not deserve,” she said.
Sicilia particularly mentioned examining the panels emphasizing people’s experiences as well as the statistics of losses during the Holocaust. “Here, we’re learning history and people’s stories. In school, it’s just history. We read books, but some are fiction. It’s awesome to learn from real people what they went through and how it felt. It’s been amazing.”