Two survivors — a former inmate at Auschwitz and a teen who battled cancer — shared their stories with a group of students and adults in a local interfaith program aimed at teaching tolerance and human rights.
Dr. Joel Lebowitz, a physicist at Rutgers University was the featured speaker at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick on Jan. 20. The program, featuring participants from local synagogues and churches, was a follow-up to the previous day’s 11th annual trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington sponsored by B’nai Shalom’s Daniel Pearl Education Center.
The visit to the museum, which always takes place on Martin Luther King Day, included students, parents, advisers, and teachers from the religious school of Temple B’nai Shalom, the full-day school at St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in East Brunswick, and others. In Washington, the group also visited the Lincoln Memorial and Viet Nam Veterans Memorial.
Also taking part were students from Young Israel of East Brunswick, Temple Emanu-El in Edison, Calvary Korean United Methodist Church in East Brunswick, students from East Brunswick High School, and members of B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.
This year’s trip received funding from the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which on Jan. 1 merged with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
Lebowitz, a native of Taceva in Czechoslovakia, now part of Ukraine, told the gathering how beginning in 1944 the town’s Jews were forced into a ghetto. His family survived with the help of a friendly Christian neighbor who smuggled food to them.
Months later, they were ordered onto a train that took the then 14-year-old Lebowitz and his family to Auschwitz. As he watched the Gestapo officer divide the people in line by gender and age, the teen made “the most fateful decision of my whole life.”
“I said I was 15 because I wanted to be with my father and join the group of adults,” he said. “It turned out the children and weak were taken directly to the crematorium.”
His group was taken to an agricultural village where they worked six days a week in the fields and on the seventh repaired wagons and trains.
That September they were taken to work in a quarry in the main concentration camp. However, because his father didn’t want to work on the Jewish holy days, he feigned illness and was taken to the camp hospital. Lebowitz never saw him again.
In January 1945, with Russian troops closing in, Lebowitz and other inmates were forced on a death march through the snow. He watched as some collapsed from exhaustion or were shot by guards for being too weak or for trying to escape.
They were eventually put on a train to Dora-Mittelbau in Germany and were later transferred to Bergen-Belsen, from which Lebowitz was liberated months later by “horrified” British troops.
“I believe I weighed less than 60 pounds,” said Lebowitz. “My bones stuck out so much it was literally painful to sit on a chair.” He said that a “strong survival instinct” helped carry him through.
After the war, he came to New York City, where he had an uncle, and lived in a yeshiva dorm in Brooklyn, eventually earning his doctorate at Syracuse University and launching his prestigious career.
Lebowitz, who came to Rutgers in 1977, is the George William Hill Professor of Mathematics and Physics and director of the Rutgers Center for Mathematical Sciences Research. He has gained international renown for his contributions to statistical physics and mechanics. He is also the longtime cochair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists, which promotes human rights and academic freedom around the globe.
In his talk, the Princeton resident played down his academic accomplishments, preferring to focus on the intolerance that resulted in the death of his parents, younger sister, and other relatives and took away his youth.
“Please take the lead in fighting intolerance and indignity and the violation of human rights wherever they occur,” he urged the teens. “In Europe it was happening in the 1930s and ’40s and it is still happening in many places in the world.
“Please, the future is in your hands,” he said. “It is important for you to do some good, have some empathy for people suffering, whatever race they are, in whatever country.”
Following Lebowitz’s talk, Matthew Gessner, a 16-year-old student at East Brunswick High School, said that as a cancer survivor he related to the survivor’s tale of finding the willpower to go on while living under the shadow of death. “I’ve told my story a lot of times, but you can never really convey the emotion,” Gessner said.
Several years earlier, Gessner battled a rare form of cancer as a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
“No doctor could even tell me if I would survive,” he said. “No matter how hard it is, you have to keep going. I can really relate to that.”