Being a link in the chain
Kean University conference on genocide will ‘rewitness’ Holocaust
Kean University’s master’s program in Holocaust and genocide studies is sponsoring a conference called the “Search for Humanity After Atrocity” on October 16 and 17. (See below.)
The conference, which will meet in person on the school’s Union campus, features “local, national, and international scholars,” according to the school. It will “bring together graduate students, leading scholars, and practitioners to examine new ways to pursue justice and negotiate post-conflict conditions.
Loung Ung, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, will give the keynote speech, and Kean’s president, Dr. Lamont Repollet, and the school’s provost, David Birdsell, will open it.
The speakers include Elyse Wolff of Martinsville, the granddaughter of survivors, who is a member of the New Jersey State Commission on Holocaust Education. She, Dr. Rebekah Slodounik of Bucknell University, and Dave Reckess, the executive director of 3G, an organization that represents survivors’ grandchildren — the third generation, that is — will participate in a panel about what they call rewitnessing. They tell their grandparents’ stories in ways that keep the stories, and the horrors, alive.
They call the presentation L’Dor V’Dor. From generation to generation. “The idea is to be a link in the chain,” Ms. Wolff said.
“My grandmother, Yolan Lichtman, died in 1994. I grew up in Paramus, and she told the story publicly only once, when she spoke to my eighth-grade class.
“I went to Yavneh; I was in eighth grade in 1992-93, and we were studying the Holocaust. She died before the Shoah Foundation could get to her, and her story didn’t totally make sense to me.” Like many survivors, Ms. Lichtman told it in bits; it was hard to piece them together, in the way that nightmares don’t necessarily have transitions between their terrors. “So I had to do a lot of research to put the pieces together,” Ms. Wolff said.
She sees a difference between 2Gs and 3Gs, she said. “My mother never wanted to force her mother to relive the trauma, but I wanted to know,” she said. “I had so many questions about the numbers on her arm. She just told me that bad people put them there. But I had so many unanswered questions.”
Ms. Wolff learned more about her grandparents’ story, and now she tells it to students.
Yolan Moldovan and Joseph Lichtman were newlyweds in the Satu Mare region, part of Transylvania, that went back and forth between Hungary and Romania. It was Romania then, but the families spoke Hungarian. “When my grandmother told the story, she used the word ‘lucky,’ a lot,” Ms. Wolff said. “That’s crazy, because you’re not lucky when you’re imprisoned by the Nazis.” But her grandmother meant that the Nazis didn’t get to them until late in the war. She and her family were put into the ghetto in the city of Satu Mare in the spring of 1943, and the ghetto was liquidated soon afterward.
Yolan was the tenth of 11 siblings; she and one of her sisters, Irene, were able to stay together as they were shipped to Auschwitz by cattle car. “She was pregnant at the time, but not showing,” Ms. Wolff said. “Someone she presumed to be Dr Mengele was there when they got off the train, and he said that all the pregnant women should go with him.
“She took half a step toward him, and she realized that if she went with him, she wouldn’t be with her sister. So she didn’t, and that probably saved her life.
“She talked about getting the tattoo. She was number A13143. I explain, when I tell this story to students, what that means. The Nazis were terrible people, but they were not stupid. That’s why there was the A. There were thousands of prisoners tattooed before her, and thousands after her; when they got to 20,000, they went to B.”
Ms. Wolff wants her listeners to realize that although now all the survivors still alive are old, they were young when this happened to them. “I tell them that she wasn’t much older than they are now. She was a newly pregnant newlywed.
“My grandmother explained how she had to get naked, and how very hard that was for an Orthodox woman. And all the hair on their bodies was shaved. She talked about the daily roll calls, and how they had to line up.
“She told my eighth-grade class that in the middle of one very cold, rainy night they were called out for roll call. They had to bring out the dead bodies, and there was a body missing. They all had to kneel. She knew that she was bleeding.” She was miscarrying the fetus whose existence she’d hidden. “If it weren’t for the missing prisoner and the mud and the darkness of the middle of the night, and if weren’t for her sister, and the help of the other prisoners…” Ms. Wolfe had to stop talking. No matter how many times she tells the story, its indecency, its cruelty, its lack of humanity, its pure evil — and the decency and goodness of the women who helped save her grandmother — fills her throat and eyes with tears.
“My grandmother managed to stay with her sister,” she continued. “As the Allied forces drew nearer, the Nazis were killing even more quickly. The crematorium smoked nonstop. She and her sister were sent into a factory in the woods. She claimed she worked on airplanes to support the German war effort. I don’t know that it was specifically planes that the factory made, but it was to support the Germans.
“Eventually, she and Irene and everyone else were sent on a death march to Terezin. If you were to walk from Parsippany to Washington DC you wouldn’t have walked as far as they walked. They were starving, they were wearing barely any clothing. Her sister got sick during the walk, and my grandmother had to carry her. When the guards came by to check, she would pinch her sister’s cheeks to make her look healthy.”
In May 1945, Terezin was liberated. “My grandmother went back to her village to see who survived. Full lines of her family perished, but amazingly, my grandfather survived.” He was the only one in his large family still alive at the end of the war; three of Yolan and Irene’s brothers also survived. “My grandmother’s mother, Hannah Moldovan, died before the war, and her father, Vilmush Moldovan, did not survive it,” Ms. Wolf said.
After the war, “my grandfather wanted to come to America right away, but my grandmother did not. She wanted to stay with her family. So my mom,” Aggi Wallach, “and my aunt,” Marie Friedman, “were both in Romania.
“The family started to leave as communism was on the rise,” Ms. Wolff continued. “Most of the family went to Israel, and some of them went to Australia.”
One of the most astonishing things about the people who survived the Holocaust is that so many of them still retained the capacity for joy, curiosity, and love. On their way out of Romania, headed to Israel, the Lichtmans and a nephew they’d taken in, Allan Farkas, stopped in Paris. “My grandparents really wanted to see Paris,” Ms. Wolff said. When they were there, “my grandfather sent a telegram to a cousin he’d heard survived and had gone to America. The cousin wrote back and said ‘Why go to Israel? Come to America! I’ll sponsor you.’”
So they did. They went to Perth Amboy, where they all shared a two-family house, Mr. Lichtman worked as a mechanic, and Ms. Lichtman got a job in a clothing factory. “My grandfather died nine years later,” when her mother still was a teenager,” Ms. Wolff said.
Although she’d participated in activities for survivors’ descendants and had gone on the March of the Living in 1996, “it wasn’t until Allan Farkas died in 2016 that I realized that there were no survivors left in my family,” Ms. Wolff said. “I realized that if I didn’t do something, the story would be lost. That’s when I started to talk about it. I talk a bit about the impact it had on me when I realized how special my family story is.
“I have presented the story dozens of times now, to synagogues and schools, mainly public schools. She’s told it in her shul, Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, and in her mother-in-law’s synagogue, Temple Beth Torah in Melville on Long Island, as well as in others.
“The point of l’dor v’dor isn’t just telling the story,” Ms. Wolff said. “It’s telling the story in a way that gives meaning to ‘never again’ and ‘never forget.’”
Who: Kean University’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies masters’ program
What: Presents a conference, “The Search for Humanity After Atrocity”
When: On Sunday, October 16, and Monday, October 17. (And an
acknowledgment; Shemini Atzeret begins on Sunday evening and goes through Monday.)
Where: At Kean’s campus in Union
For more information and to register: Go to www.kean.edu/search-for-humanity