Since 1997, Michael Rubell of Morristown has shepherded some 4,000 New Jerseyans on bus trips — about one a month during the school year — to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
The overwhelming majority of them have been middle and high school students from area public and private schools.
But the journey he led on April 3 along with Fred Heyman, a Berlin-born survivor who also lives in Morristown, was very different.
Instead of teens, the seats on the bus he chartered were filled with 50 undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Saint Elizabeth.
Working with Harriet Sepinwall, professor of Holocaust studies and founding codirector of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at the Roman Catholic institution, Rubell recruited students ranging from freshmen to PhD candidates.
They signed up for a long day’s journey that began at 7 a.m. on their Morristown campus, reached the museum at lunch time, and ended with visits to the Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials in the nation’s capital before the drive back to New Jersey.
Like the other student pilgrimages to the museum, this one was sponsored by the Morris Rubell Holocaust Remembrance Journeys.
It is a foundation dedicated to the memory of Michael Rubell’s father, who was 11 years old when he was captured by the Nazis in Poland, separated from his family, and imprisoned in the Plaszow forced labor camp, and in Melk and Ebensee, part of the Mauthausen network of concentration camps. He was liberated in 1945 at the age of 15.
The Rubell Journeys are run under the auspices of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“I ran this trip in a way similar to the way I usually run my middle and high school trips,” Michael Rubell told NJ Jewish News a day after his latest excursion. “But what was especially rewarding was that the discussions we had were at a much deeper and higher level than that with the middle and high school students. The younger kids get it, but sometimes they are unable to express it as well. Many of the adults are studying the topic and have the skills and depth of knowledge to express the impact of the experience.”
To those who have taken Sepinwall’s graduate and undergraduate classes in Holocaust studies, the visit to the museum was a hands-on enhancement of their academic experience. For others, it was an experience that was both jarring and enlightening.
Two of the participants were Catholic nuns from Nigeria who had never heard about the Holocaust before making the trip.
One of them, Sister Flourence Akhimier, a graduate student at the college, told NJJN, “It was very challenging for me to believe that such things might happen to my fellow human beings, that human beings could kill each other in such a way. I cried within myself. How would God feel toward this kind of treatment toward human beings?”
It was the second trip to the museum for Kristin Forbes of Plainfield, a CSE junior majoring in education and history, who also was part of a Remembrance Journey when she was in high school. Both visits “definitely made an impact on me…,” she said. “I felt like I was almost there and able to envision what was happening.”
Roseann Monteleone, a graduate student in business management from Hackettstown who will receive her master’s degree in May, had a special interest in learning more about the Shoa.
“I am Catholic, but I work one day at week at Temple Shalom in Roxbury, and I have heard the rabbi talking about the Holocaust while I am doing the oneg Shabbat on Friday nights and during the High Holy Days,” she said. “It is something I didn’t know much about, and the opportunity to go on the trip and hear the survivor…brought knowledge to me and had me more interested in reading about it.”
Heyman, who has accompanied Rubell on most of the Remembrance Journeys over the years, gives testimony of his experiences during the bus ride to Washington. A witness to Kristallnacht as a boy, he and his family managed to survive the war in Berlin.
Carlo Castro, an undergraduate nursing student from Union, told NJJN he has seen his share of death and violence in hospital settings. “But I am still trying to put together how we as people are going to such extremes as genociding people and looking the other way at people who are involved in doing it,” he told NJJN.
“Then on the other side, we see people who are dedicated to improving their countries. It shows how much we are capable of, either as complete genocide or the betterment of an entire country,” said Castro. “I think we have to keep talking about it because eventually people will say, ‘The Holocaust never happened’ or ‘It was just propaganda.’”
In an e-mail to NJJN, Alondra Vargas, a junior from Dover, wrote that “attending this trip was an eye-opener…. I learned that there were actually Jewish resistance groups that fought back and made somewhat of a difference during the war. Looking at the pictures and videos truly touched my heart and made me want to stand up and do more for our brothers and sisters.”
Sepinwall, who was on the trip and has visited the museum “many, many times,” told NJJN she sees “something new every time I go there. The more that I am studying, the more that I am reading, the more that I am noticing in the museum. I also see new implications about the way we need to teach about it. I feel impelled more than ever to continue this work, even though sometimes I feel we are failing because we see genocides continuing to happen. Then I look at the people we are engaging, and I see the lights going off in their heads as they share what it means to them.”
“We bonded,” Sepinwall said. The CSE students and others “felt this was important, and they were thinking, ‘What can I do? What can I tell others?’ There was a lot of emphasis on taking responsibility for what happens to others.”