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Student seminar fortifies Shoa awareness
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Student seminar fortifies Shoa awareness

Survivor and diplomat brief alumni of visits to Holocaust museum

Michael Rubell, second from right, honors three students for their work on promoting Holocaust awareness, from left, Grace Gentle, Ella DeBode, and Harry Kern. 
Michael Rubell, second from right, honors three students for their work on promoting Holocaust awareness, from left, Grace Gentle, Ella DeBode, and Harry Kern. 

A Vienna-born Shoa survivor and an Austrian diplomat were among the speakers at a seminar meant to reinforce the Holocaust awareness of New Jersey public school students.

Teenagers taking part in the May 20 seminar at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany were alumni of the Morris Rubell Holocaust Remembrance Journeys, which each year runs bus trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

The Rubell Youth Leadership Seminars provide participants with a chance to compare notes and explore their ideas about the bus trips. 

This month’s follow-up, cosponsored by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, included a presentation by 93-year-old Leo Schenker of Basking Ridge, a survivor, and Ambassador Georg Heindl, the consul general of Austria in New York, who was born 17 years after the war ended.

The 200 students who took part in this year’s museum visits, held over the last few months, attend Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, Rahway High School, Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, and West Milford High School.

Michael Rubell of Morristown started the trips to the museum in 1997 in memory of his father, Maurice, a survivor from Poland who died in 1995. Holocaust survivors accompany the youngsters to Washington.

Schenker, who came from Austria, was introduced by Vera Chapman, a Verona resident who was also born in Vienna and whose family escaped to Israel before settling in the United States. She said, “His will to live, his creativity and ingenuity, and some good luck helped him survive.”

Those elements all came together, the tall, white-haired Schenker explained, in the way he and his brother managed to pass themselves off as German soldiers, with forged papers, trading on their fluency in German.

Life, he said, “had become hell on earth. All that has been written doesn’t begin to describe the horrors. People were reduced by beatings and insults until they couldn’t call themselves human any longer. You felt more animal than human. When news came of the death of a friend or a member of the family, it did not move us; our hearts had turned to stone.” 

After he finally fled the army, he discovered it had been easier to convince Nazis that he was one of them than to prove he was actually a Jew so he could get passage on a boat to Palestine.

Heindl said he has felt a special responsibility “to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, because of what emanated from Austria’s soil.”

He said he has met many survivors from the country and has “always been so touched by how friendly and open they are to me, and how they have kept their love of Austria and Austrian culture. I ask myself whether I and my country deserve that love.”

The seminar was an opportunity to honor the young as well as the old. Three of the students, Harry Kern, Ella DeBode, and Grace Gentle, were honored for their work as “upstanders,” helping underprivileged people in the community and their ongoing engagement in raising Holocaust awareness. 

A number of other survivors were present, too, together with other members of the Holocaust council. They talked with the students over lunch, and later lit candles in remembrance of those whose lives were cut short by the war.

When it came to question time, one of the students asked Schenker if he still feels hatred for the Nazis. Though he vividly remembers their atrocities, Schenker replied, “70 years is a long time. The grudge has disappeared.”

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