Long panels in the lobby of the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany bear witness to what happened to 13 Jewish residents of the German town of Lichtenfels during the Holocaust. Some were sent to camps, some escaped, some were murdered. All were victims.
And three are relatives of Livingston resident Inge Stanton, a native of Lichtenfels.
On July 18, Stanton, her niece Lisa Salko of Elmsford, N.Y., and three recent high school graduates from Lichtenfels were on hand for the N.J. launch of “13 Driver’s Licenses: 13 Jewish Lives,” an exhibit that started with the discovery of a cache of old driver’s licenses and debuted in the restored synagogue of Lichtenfels last November. The exhibit has since traveled around Germany, been translated into English, and been seen by an estimated 5,000 visitors. The Holocaust Council of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ brought the exhibit to Whippany.
The exhibit is the result of an extraordinary series of events beginning with the discovery of 13 driver’s licenses that had been confiscated from Jewish citizens of Lichtenfels in the 1930s. Although Lichtenfels was once home to 750 Jewish families, no Jews have lived in the town since the Holocaust.
In February 2017, the town’s district administrator, Christian Meissner, found the licenses languishing in an old envelope in a desk drawer. Instead of sending them to the government (as required by law), he offered them to the local high school, hoping it might provide a teachable moment. In fact, it provided hours.
The licenses became the core of a student project for a history seminar: Each of the 14 students in the class was assigned a license, and their job (working in pairs or teams) was to compile as much information as they could find about the person who had owned it.
Over the course of the 2017-2018 school year, after digging through local archives and those in the U.S. and Israel, as well as national sources and museums, the students assigned to the licenses once owned by Stanton’s father, uncle, and uncle’s brother-in-law ultimately found the family.
Salko said they were initially “stunned” to hear from the students, and were able to provide the teens with missing information for their assignment. (Stanton escaped Lichtenfels with her parents; her uncle, Sigmund Marx, also escaped with his family, but his brother-in-law, Alfred Oppenheimer, was arrested with his family and murdered in the Sobibor death camp in Poland.)
In the fall, Stanton, Salko, and their extended families were invited to Lichtenfels, along with the other descendants that were found, for the opening of the exhibit that resulted from the students’ extraordinary efforts. Those efforts enabled Meissner, the district administrator, to undertake his other goal in passing the licenses on to the students: to return them to their rightful owners.
The details included in the panels are breathtaking, including many of the victims’ social circles, livelihoods, and photos from before and after the war, as well as information about their internment, escape, death, or survival.
Salko, who — along with her aunt and the three visiting high school students —addressed the approximately 150 people in attendance, recalled what it was like to be in Lichtenfels for the exhibit’s opening ceremony and meet the townspeople and the students.
“We could see it in the students’ eyes, hear it in their voices, and see the depth of sorrow on their faces as they captured each tragic story of the 13,” she said. “The students humanized the faces on those licenses. They internalized the horrors of death and the suffering and struggle of survival.”
And she added, “It was not lost on us that for some residents, their ancestors were Nazi sympathizers, yet here they were.”
Returning the licenses provided closure for Salko and her family. “It was as if we were reaching through time and hugging our 39-year-old grandfather and our great-uncle, Alfred Oppenheimer, and saying, ‘It’s OK now.’”
After Stanton shared some of her memories of Lichtenfels with the audience, the three students, twins Clara and Louisa Aumüller and Victoria Thiel — each of whom will attend university in the fall — detailed how they conducted the painstaking research, how it affected them, and what they know about their respective family’s actions during the war. Victoria said her grandparents never spoke to her about the Holocaust and Clara said the same, but her sister said they told her and it was difficult to hear.
“They were pretty young during this time and they told me about how they went to the stores” owned by some of the 13 Jewish families, Louisa said. “And they told me about their time in elementary school where they had to participate in Hitler Youth, and they told me about the uniform they had to wear, which was really a shocking experience to imagine my grandma, my grandpa, who I love so much, just wearing this uniform and being part of this.”
Some in the audience wondered if the students, having thoroughly studied the lead-up to the war in Lichtenfels, saw any similarities to modern-day events. During a question-and-answer session, one attendee asked how they would feel if another group of people became the target of hate propaganda. “It’s difficult to imagine how I would react, but I hope that I would stand up and resist,” answered Victoria to thunderous applause.
In the lobby visitors pored over the exhibit.
“My heart is heavy; my heart is full,” said Bari Adelman of Montville, who had relatives murdered in the Holocaust. Reading the banners was like reliving her own family stories, she said. But it also gave her hope. “The fact that they were so persistent and did what they did… it’s just fantastic.
“It’s scary what’s happening in the world now, as we’ve all said. If we can choose to use exhibits like this to make a difference…”
“13 Driver’s Licenses: 13 Jewish Lives” will run through July 31. For information, contact the Holocaust Council at 973-929-3194 or email@example.com.