It wasn’t food that kept Michael Roth alive in the concentration camp; there wasn’t enough of it. When he got ill, it wasn’t medicine that saved him; there was none. He survived on hope. “If you’ve got hope, you can cope. You can get through any challenge,” his son Lewis said his father told him.
Roth was one of the six survivors who lit candles at the Yom Hashoa commemoration held May 2 in the Wilkins Theater at Kean University in Union. The annual event, cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey and the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean, drew an audience of around 750 people, including many from outside the Jewish community.
Roth’s story of survival was told by Lewis. The other survivors on the stage included Nathan Kasdan, whose daughter Elissa Greenspoon told his story; Edward Mosberg, whose daughter Louise Levine told his; Abraham Klein, represented by his daughter Susann Krane; Enoch Trencher, whose wife Shirley spoke for him; and Abraham Zuckerman, whose son Wayne told his story.
While they made clear what horrors they endured, and how many cherished and beloved lives were lost, each story focused on the miracle of survival. As Rabbi Mendy Herson said in his d’var Torah, even as one focuses on the tragedy, they followed the injunction in Ecclesiastes that “the living should take unto their hearts,” and ensure Jewish survival by making the most of life.
For many survivors, the key to recovery lay in the displaced persons camps they lived in after liberation. The theme for this year’s commemoration, “New Beginnings,” focused on the way Jews in those camps rallied together. Roth said there were 20 weddings a day in the camp at Bergen-Belsen, where he found haven. He also met his first wife there.
Abraham Zuckerman, one of those saved by Oskar Schindler, was determined to keep alive the memory of the tragedy. He wrote a book about it, A Voice in the Chorus. But while his theme was “Never forgive; never forget,” optimism has been his core belief. As his son Wayne quoted him as saying, “Good will always prevail over evil.”
Greenspoon, relating how her father made it through the war as a young teenager cut off from his family, attributed it to “sheer luck and the incredible human will to survive.”
Master of ceremonies was Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director of strategic partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the organization that helped run those DP camps. He pointed out that the local community “was strengthened and inspired by the dreams, ideals, and perseverance of Holocaust survivors,” many of whom spent years in the DP camps before immigrating to the United States.
It is a common misperception, he said, that after the war survivors were free to return to their homes. For many that was very tough because of political and economic chaos. For Jews, it was often impossible. They faced hatred from their former neighbors as murderous as the Nazis’. And even in the DP camps, the danger persisted. They needed — and eventually were provided with — special camps that provided additional support and protection.
Ben-Shimon said, “As a Jew, I’m proud to let you know that we did not stand idly by as other Jews languished in these camps. Organizations like the Joint, the Jewish Agency, and ORT were instrumental in improving conditions for Jews displaced by the Holocaust. They worked tirelessly to ensure that those Jews were properly equipped to rebuild their lives.”
Kean president Dr. Dawood Farahi told the gathering that two people revered in the Kean community, Clara and Sol Kramer, spent years in the camps and that Jewish survivors have bestowed an abundance of benefits on the United States.
He mentioned too, with great satisfaction, that a new step has been taken in Kean’s commitment to spread knowledge of the Holocaust. Its education program, which reaches 200 students a semester, will now be offering honors courses leading to advanced placement credit.
Dr. Joseph Preil, who — with Clara Kramer — helped establish the Holocaust Resource Center, was among those in the audience. He said afterward that that was particularly apt, because “we attract the very best students.”
The program included singing by the student choir of the Jewish Educational Center Yeshiva led by Chana Solomon, joined this year for the first time by students from Elmora Public School #12, led by Dr. Anna Kroik. In the audience were many of their parents and siblings.
Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone said, “The program was excellent, as we’ve come to expect, and there was this wonderful addition. The parents and children from the Elmora school were very attentive and responsive. I think it provided them with something to which they’re not normally exposed.”
Marcy Lazar, who headed the committee that planned the event, was equally pleased. She said, “When I saw the children singing together, it gave me goosebumps. It was really gratifying also to see the theater so well filled, after all the work that went into the program. With the survivor population growing smaller each year, it’s so important that we continue to get this message out and that the community respond like this.”