Local Holocaust survivors shared their experiences during the Nazi regime to help educate seventh grade students about intolerance, at two luncheons at Brookdale Community College on June 4 and 5.
The “Lunch with a Survivor” program, developed by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale and Cedar Drive Middle School, Colts Neck, is in its third year.
The program was developed when a former Cedar Drive Middle School student, Molly Cohen, experienced anti-Semitic bullying at school. When Cohen was a sixth-grader, a classmate began to draw a border of swastikas around her notebook. Cohen asked her to stop, but the girl refused. Two years later, Cohen unfortunately experienced another incident when another classmate shaped a swastika out of clay and then held it in front of her face.
After the first incident, Cohen and her family connected with Dale Daniels, Executive Director of Chhange, who introduced Cohen to Holocaust survivor Helena Flaum. Cohen received encouragement and support from Flaum, which helped to transform her life. So much so that Cohen, now a tenth-grader, spoke at the luncheons to the current Cedar Drive Middle School seventh grade class about her experiences with anti-Semitism and her quest to educate.
“When my family and I connected with Chhange, I was fortunate enough to meet Helena. She told me that we can forgive, but we must not forget. I remembered Helena telling me to fight for who I am, and that’s exactly what I did the second time I faced anti-Semitism,” said Cohen. “I knew I needed to take something very negative and turn it into something positive, which is why I am here today. If we can educate one person at a time, and they in turn educate others, we may get closer to conquering ignorance and hatred.”
At the Chhange luncheons, Cohen spoke about how vulnerable she had felt, but how meeting Flaum encouraged her to stay strong.
After Cohen’s presentation, Daniels informed the seventh graders that, “Today you will experience an eye-witness account of history. Each of the survivors here were children, your age or younger, when the Holocaust happened.” The students then shared pizza with the Holocaust survivors and listened to their life histories.
As the survivors began telling their stories to the students around the table, the students became enthralled by the descriptions of the survivors’ childhood struggles. The students eyes widened, they leaned in, and many were visibly shocked by the survivors’ experiences. One survivor told students that she was only eight when her life drastically changed. She recalled being forced to wear a yellow patch indicating that her family was Jewish, which was when she lost her friends and her childhood.
Many of the survivors shared personal photos, childhood clothing, newspaper clippings, and books with the seventh graders, but nothing was more vivid than the tales of bravery, strength, and survival.
Flaum, pictured above, continued to impact students at Cedar Drive Middle School when she described how her childhood changed in 1939 when Russia and Germany signed the Non-Aggression Pact, which divided her home in Poland between the two countries. Rawa Ruska, initially a part of Russia, was under German rule in 1941 after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Within 48 hours of German rule, anti-Jewish laws were imposed, which required Jews to receive rationed food, wear armbands, and report to manual labor.
“In the summer of 1942, my father’s friend, who was a German, worked for the Ministry of Labor and told my father that my grandmother, uncle, and family friends were deported to Belzec, a death camp. He informed my father that it wouldn’t be long before the Germans came back for the rest of us,” said Flaum. “He told my father that he could save my life because he was in charge of making a list of Polish Christian women that would be sent to Germany for forced labor. He secured me a new birth certificate and registered me as a Christian.”
That autumn, at 15 years of age, Flaum left Rawa Ruska alone, with a new identity. Flaum worked in Greiz, Germany from 1942-1945 where she hid her Jewish identity under the name Katrina Hansen. While there, Flaum would receive letters from her father occasionally. One day, however, she received a letter from the man who gave her the new identity.
“The letter stated that there was a terrible harvest at the farm and everything was destroyed. I knew this was code and that my family was sent to Belzec. I was devastated, but I couldn’t show any emotion because I didn’t want my true identity to be revealed,” said Flaum.
Survivor Ruth Rosenfeld described how her childhood changed when the Nazis invaded Poland. She told the students that her mother, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, and uncle were taken to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Rosenfeld, her sister, and her father went into hiding at the home of a Christian woman. She described how she hid in a wooden barrel filled with poppy seeds when the Nazis searched the house of the woman who was sheltering her.
“I remember curling up as tight as I could, into a small ball. My heart was pounding and my throat was closing due to fear as the Nazis poked their rifles through the barrel,” said Rosenfeld to the students.
As Rosenfeld continued, her voice cracked as she described a fateful train ride as her family tried to escape to Czechoslovakia. The train stopped at a German convoy, was then searched by Nazis who recognized that her father was Jewish. He was then taken off the train and killed.
“After the train ride, my sister and I were taken back in by the Christian woman until she was suspected of hiding Jews. We then stayed with two sisters, who lived in a nearby village, until the end of the war,” said Rosenfeld. “Although I was only three or four when this all happened, I always understood the physical danger my sister and I were in.”
The luncheon provides survivors the opportunity to share their own personal stories of struggle and survival while educating and enlightening a new generation about the Holocaust. Other survivors at the luncheons included: Helen Terris, Eva Wiener, Judith Meisels, Gerard Blumenthal, Eugene Gottlieb, Ruth Gottlieb, Lidia Siciarz, Gitta Man, Claire Boren, and Mona Ginsberg.