After meeting with Holocaust survivors at a gathering in Whippany, some 100 students from three New Jersey high schools pledged to continue telling their stories of survival from now until the year 2045 — a century after the liberation of the Nazi concentration campus.
In a luncheon at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus led by Paul Winkler, executive director of the NJ State Commission on Holocaust Education, the students raised their hands and said “yes” loudly when he told them, “Once you’ve heard these experiences, you can’t walk away.”
The collective promise came at the end of a two-hour session of the survivors sharing testimony of the events they witnessed or lived through. Teenagers from Parsippany High School, Rahway High School, and Weequahic High School in Newark talked across 12 large tables with Jews who had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis, and two U.S. Army veterans of World War II.
Addressing the diverse group of students — among them black, Latino, Asian, and white youth of many ethnicities — the Jewish senior citizens shared their personal stories of imprisonment, hiding, torture, and narrow escapes as the young people listened intently.
“I was shy, I was little, and I was lost, but I was lucky people treated me well,” Hanna Keselman of Springfield told her table of students.
“They put me in a children’s home like an orphanage that was not far from Paris. Bombing started and we spent nights in an underground shelter,” she said. “Then they evacuated us to the south of France where it would be safe, and I remember being taken to a place that was like an old castle and we slept on the floor. We were really hungry. There was not much food.”
Carl Dubovy of Chester told students from Weequahic a harrowing tale.
“The Nazis came and they brought us to a camp and they sent my father and my older brother to work in a munitions plant. I was just 11, and they had no use for women and children and old people, so they sent us to Auschwitz. I was on a cattle car. It was the worst moments of my life. For about five days there and you knew you were coming there to be killed.
“But fortunately,” continued Dubovy, “the commandant at Auschwitz didn’t unload us because he didn’t know what to do after he killed us. So they sent us back to Czechoslovakia. “That was the only transport to Auschwitz that wasn’t unloaded.”
Robert Hilton, an English teacher at Weequahic High School, instructs his students about Nazi genocide and American slavery in what he calls “the black and Jewish Holocausts.”
“I show films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist about the Jewish Holocaust and documentaries on the black Holocaust,” he told NJJN. He said he makes connections between the two tragic historic circumstances, reminding his students that members of both groups “were taken from our families.”
He said he is surprised that many of his students, after learning the history of both atrocities, say “the Jewish Holocaust was worse.” The students acknowledge, Hilton said, that black Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, but they didn’t “bring them to America to kill them.”
“I don’t think you can compare them,” Shaquille Henry, one of Hilton’s students, told NJJN. “They were different races in different places and horrific things took place. They both were very tragic. I’ve talked to survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, and it is really touching to hear what they have been through. The best I can do is notify others about it.”
Bea Glotzer of Livingston agreed.
As she ate lunch before speaking with students from Rahway, she told NJJN that they are members of “a very important generation because they are the last generation to ever meet a survivor.” She was seven years old when the events of the Holocaust began, “and now I am 82, and the older survivors have died out. It is up to the young people to carry our story for the next generation.”
The session ended as representatives of the three high schools shared their feelings about their conversations with the survivors and veterans.
“Our high school is proud that we came and talked to the Holocaust survivors about their experiences,” said Diane Porter, a member of the class of 2012 at Rahway High School.
Isaac Parker, a junior at Weequahic who is studying both African-American slavery and the Jewish Holocaust, thanked the survivors “for coming here so we get to see what their lives were about.”
Harsh Joshi, a Parsippany High School freshman, said he “wanted to thank all the survivors for telling their story. It means a lot that we got to hear you.”
His classmate, Donna Herbst, said, “We learned a lot. We really appreciate hearing your stories of the Holocaust.”
Then two survivors, Gina Lanceter of Montclair and Ed Bindel of Mountain Lakes, thanked the students.
“I am very glad to see young faces,” Lanceter said. “We are very happy we can host this so you can learn something that maybe you didn’t know before. I give you my message that it is very important to remember what happened and it is very important not to be a bystander, but to be an ‘upstander.’
“If you see someone bullied, take a stand,” said Lanceter. “Don’t be passive. A lot of single individuals helped me, and if someone had said ‘no,’ I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Bindel said he knew that if survivors don’t tell the stories of their experiences now, “there will be no one to speak. The survivors are getting on. It is so important to pass on the history. We haven’t done a very good job of straightening out this world. We hope your generation will do better.”
The event was hosted by the Holocaust Council of MetroWest under the ausipices of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. The Linda and Murray Laulicht Foundation sponsored the program.