JFNNJ Holocaust commemoration retains tradition, adds new insight
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JFNNJ Holocaust commemoration retains tradition, adds new insight

Keynote speaker will discuss biological implications of trauma

There is something particularly meaningful about hearing the stories of individual survivors.

Allyn Michaelson and Rosalind Melzer, longtime organizers of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual Holocaust commemoration and this year’s co-chairs, have interviewed some 85 survivors, compiling their stories for these events.

“Finding survivors is getting harder,” Ms. Michaelson said, noting that as survivors age, it’s more difficult for them to go through the interview process and then show up at the programs. In addition, many have already told their stories, while others have chosen not to do so.

“We’re also running into survivors who were very young at the time” of the Holocaust, she said. In fact, one of the people who will be honored at the April 16 ceremony was 2 years old when he was placed on a kindertransport with his brother and sister.

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Dr. Rachel Yeduda

The stories of the survivors – this year including Gregory Abraizov of Fair Lawn, Siegmar Silber of Paterson, Mali Janower of Monsey, N.Y., Miryam Suserman of Hackensack, Bella Miller of Wanaque, and Abe Citrin of Fair Lawn – vary widely. Mr. Abraizov fought in the Russian army, while Ms. Suserman was caught in the Paris Velodrome d’ Hiver, a Nazi-directed raid and mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police in July 1942.

“She was then sent to a concentration camp, where she lost her mother and brother,” Ms. Michaelson said. “She went through the system herself.”

As is customary, this year’s program, marking the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, will feature local teenagers reading survivors’ stories. As their stories are read, each survivor will light a memorial candle.

While the program will follow the order set in earlier years, Ms. Michaelson believes each part of the ceremony has a particular value. For example, a children’s candle procession – with 72 yahrzeit candles borne aloft by children from local schools and synagogues – is not just a decorative element, she said.

“Jewish children are the survivor’s victory,” she said, adding that “this gives them an opportunity to take part, not just as spectators.” She also pointed out that the JFNNJ Holocaust commemoration embraces towns from Cliffside Park to Kinnelon.

She pointed out that more than 500 people attend the event each year. “It’s always so powerful to hear the narration, especially from young voices,” she said.

This year, program organizers have added closed captioning. As survivors age and their hearing declines, “they say that they can’t hear and understand. It’s really hard to get good readers,” she added, even through program planners choose the readers carefully. Since Wyckoff’s Beth Rishon- where the program will be held – has television screens, it can include closed captions.

“This is the first time we’re doing this,” Ms. Michaelson said.

The guest speaker for the evening, psychologist/neurobiologist Dr. Rachel Yehuda, has a special connection to one of the survivors.

“When I was interviewing Sig Silber, his wife, Norma, showed us a flier from a program where they heard Dr. Yehuda speak,” Ms. Michaelson said. “Sig’s sister, Zilla, was a case study for Dr. Yehuda. He discovered that only during the talk. He wanted that to be known.”

Dr. Yehuda, director of the traumatic stress studies division at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, will discuss “How the Trauma of the Holocaust is Genetically Transmitted from Survivors to Subsequent Generations.”

A professor of psychiatry and neurobiology who has written more than 300 papers and edited 10 volumes on biological studies of PTSD and the intergenerational transmission of trauma and PTSD, Dr. Yehuda noted that recent research has found that adult children of Holocaust survivors appear to be more susceptible to depression and anxiety, but may also have more finely tuned mechanisms for detecting and coping with danger.

“I’ll make it easy,” she said of her presentation. “It won’t be too scientific.”

She noted that children of Holocaust survivors have been saying for years that they were affected by the Holocaust, a trauma experienced by their parents. She will speak about the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust. “It’s difficult to make invisible wounds visible,” she said. “If you can look inside the DNA and spot a physical change, it validates something most people have suspected.

“For years, people who were exposed to trauma have said they’re not the same person as before the event. We haven’t had stress biology to help us understand that. People generally say [about a trauma] that we get over things and the body goes back to normal. This scientific breakthrough allows us to talk about what was transformed by the experience. And the effects can be transmitted to children.”

“This is not necessarily negative,” she said. “It’s meant to prepare the next generation somehow as best as they can be prepared. The question is whether the preparation is appropriate or not appropriate. It depends on the environmental context.”

Ms. Michaelson said that Dr. Yehuda’s talk “is not just relevant to survivors but to second and third generations. This validates what they’ve always felt.”

The evening also will include a welcome from JFNNJ’s president, Dr. Zvi Marans, and from Beth Rishon’s Rabbi Kenneth Emert. The shul’s Cantor Ilan Mamber and members of the Beth Rishon choir will perform, as will Cantor David Perper of Mahwah’s Beth Haverim/Shir Shalom. Allen Zaks will offer the second generation response. Cantor Mamber will lead the prayer “El Maleh Rachamim,” and his father, who is 100 years old and left Europe in the early 1930s for Israel, will lead Kaddish.

Before the program, a photo exhibit curated by Rabbi Wallace Green that is at the Fair Lawn Public Library, will be on display at Beth Rishon. The exhibit’s theme is liberation.

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