Because he believes it essential that the memories and histories of those who lived through the Nazi genocide not be forgotten, survivor Fred Heyman of Morristown over the years has “twinned” with 38 youngsters who have pledged to remember and recount his experiences of the Holocaust. The young people have incorporated his story into their bar and bat mitzva speeches and invited him to join them on the bima at their synagogues during their services.
Survivors and b’nei mitzva youngsters are brought together through the twinning program of the Holocaust Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
One of those “twins” was Howard Goldberg of Livingston, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Ithaca College. Goldberg twinned with Heyman at his bar mitzva in September 2008 at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston.
Goldberg was so taken by their relationship that he sold Heyman on the idea of telling his story on video. They began work on it last July.
“Fred has become one of my closest friends,” Goldberg told NJ Jewish News. “I can always talk to him about anything. He has taught me so much, not just about the Holocaust but about life.”
Work on the film project proved a handy pretext when Goldberg lured Heyman to a conference room Jan. 6 at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. What was really waiting for him was a surprise party in his honor.
Among the celebrants were 12 other people who have been Heyman’s “twins.”
While they waited for him to arrive, they shared the impact their relationship with Heyman has had on them, especially his consistent message: When you see someone doing something hurtful, don’t stand by and watch but become an “upstander” who defends the underdog.
Dan Smith, who grew up in Livingston and now lives in New York City, was the first of Heyman’s twins in 2005. “When you are 13 it is a very transformative experience. Hearing what Fred had to go through at my age put a whole different perspective on how I live my daily life. I have been very involved in social justice work,” he said, citing his involvement in the campaign to end genocide in Darfur and in pro-Israel activism at the University of Michigan.
When she twinned with Heyman in 2008, said Becka Anolick of Morristown, the biggest impression he made on her was the message to “not be a bystander.” Now a student at Muhlenberg College, Anolick said knowing him also influenced her choice of major: women’s and gender studies. “My goal is to help further the cause of LGBT and women’s rights,” she said. “Not being a bystander means not standing by while other people’s rights are stepped upon.”
Eli and Seth Gnesin are identical twins from Randolph who became bar mitzva together in October 2013.
“It was a lot of fun to be a twin with Fred,” said Seth. “He had a lot of interesting things to say and I listened to his life story in depth. He taught me some things — how to be a witness and how to remember and pass his story on.”
“It was very one-on-one, very personal,” said Eli. “I spent a lot of time with Fred and got to know him as a person.”
When Heyman entered the room on the Aidekman campus, his twins and other guests stood and applauded, shouting “surprise.” Also joining in the celebration were Goldberg’s parents, Joel, a CBS television executive, and Abby, an assignment editor at the Fox News Channel, who had lent their broadcasting expertise and negotiating powers to help their son persuade a reluctant Heyman to agree to the project.
Clearly surprised, Heyman said, “What a great feeling! Thank you, guys. I don’t know what to say. I’m really touched by this.”
Later he said, “There are many survivors whose stories are more important than mine. I lived through it, and I do not know why I am alive.”
Heyman was nine and living in Berlin in 1938 when he was an eyewitness to the devastation of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — the Nov. 9-10 Nazi-led pogrom in Germany and Austria that is generally regarded as the start of the Shoa.
Although others in Heyman’s extended family perished in concentration camps, Catholic rescuers defied the Nuremberg Laws to shelter his immediate family during the war. He and his parents immigrated to Milwaukee in 1946.
For most of his life, Heyman chose to keep his bitter experiences secret. But when his wife of 50 years was terminally ill in 2005, he received a call from Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest.
“I had never talked about the Holocaust in all my years,” he told his young admirers at the gathering. “But then I got a call from my friend Barbara to come here to give a talk about it. She gave me a purpose for my life.”
Heyman has since become nearly a permanent fixture at council activities and programs. Much of the time he can be found behind a camera, shooting still photographs and videos of his fellow survivors.
Heyman believes more of his fellow survivors should share their wartime experiences with younger people, who will relate the truth of the Holocaust to future generations.
“Many survivors do not talk about it,” he said. “They are taking it with them, and when the music stops no one will hear their story.”