On a day devoted to remembering one of the darkest periods in history, about 450 gathered at Middlesex County College in Edison to pay tribute to those who risked everything to stand up to hatred.
During the May 1 Yom Hashoa program, cosponsored by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, the Office of the Governor, and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, numerous students joined with survivors, religious leaders, and community members to honor the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis and the Righteous Gentiles who risked their own lives to save thousands.
The program was also sponsored by the Middlesex County College Center for the Study of Prejudice, Genocide and the Holocaust, the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the NJ Historical Commission/Department of State.
“It was not easy for these non-Jews — Christians, Muslims, or non-believers — to save Jews,” said Stanlee J. Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which provides financial support to more than 850 non-Jews who were rescuers during the Holocaust and preserves their legacy through a national education program.
The South Orange resident focused on Poland, where most rescuers lived and where three million Jews died.
The only way in which Jews could survive outside the ghetto was with the help of Christians, said Stahl, who were threatened with “collective responsibility” by the Nazis.
“If you lived in a small village and were caught hiding four Jews and lived with your parents and grandparents, the animals were taken out of the barn and the Christian family was put in the barn along with the Jews, and it was burned down,” said Stahl. “They wanted the whole town to know…collective responsibility.”
Yet, some Poles did hide Jews in barns and attics and under floorboards and trudged miles to neighboring villages to buy extra food so as not to arouse suspicion. “These men and women were the light in the darkness,” said Stahl. “We need to teach our children that indifference can kill. We need to stand up for the stranger in our midst.”
In the hour before the program began, visitors walked silently through exhibits of essays, poetry, videos, and artwork submitted by more than 120 students as part of a contest. To begin the program, a portion of a video made by East Brunswick High School students was shown, and six contest winners read excerpts from their essays.
Other students joined a solemn procession placing yahrtzeit candles along the front of the stage. The chamber ensemble of J.P. Stevens High School in Edison sang several numbers in Hebrew, joining with Makhelat HaMercaz, the Jewish Choir of Central New Jersey, to end the two-hour program with “Hatikva.”
“This is what we have to do all over the country to make sure our youth know the story,” said Paul Winkler, executive director of the education commission, as he surveyed the student exhibit and stopped to chat with young people.
Imar Smith, a sixth-grader at William C. McGinnis School in Perth Amboy — which sent two busloads of students, teachers, and administrators to the program — said her class studied the Holocaust, but she didn’t know a lot about the rescuers “and it was really interesting to learn about these brave people.”
Commission chair Phil Kirschner told the crowd, “We can teach lifelong lessons of standing up to intolerance, standing up to bias, standing up to racism. We need to educate young people to stand up to hatred…and now the epidemic of bullying.”
He noted that not only were millions of parents, children, and loved ones lost in the Shoa, but that they included individuals whose talents would have contributed to advancing science, medicine, or world culture.
“We lost all that to hatred,” said Kirschner.
Program chair Dr. Peter Schild was heartened by the number and diversity of the young people attending and participating in the contest.
“We must never forget that the Holocaust began in a civilized country with a long list of intellectual and cultural achievements,” he said, and reminded the young people they would be the ones to remember the Shoa’s lessons when the survivors are no longer around to tell the story.
“We need to be upstanders,” said Schild, “not bystanders.”