|Rabbi Ely Allen, director of Hillel of Northern New Jersey. At right, Myriam Suserman, flanked by her daughter and granddaughter, is surrounded by Hillel students from William Paterson College.|
As the number of Holocaust survivors decreases, so too does the opportunity for young people to hear their stories firsthand.
With this in mind, the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey has created a close working relationship with local Hillel groups to ensure that the voices of survivors continue to be heard.
Rabbi Ely Allen, Hillel of Northern New Jersey director, said speakers from CafÃ© Europa – a social and support program for Holocaust survivors – have visited each of his group’s four campus chapters every semester over the past several years.
In turn, Rabbi Allen – who leads Hillel groups at William Paterson University, Ramapo College, Bergen Community College, and Fairleigh Dickinson University – speaks regularly for the survivors’ group, delivering talks on topics from kabbalah to Jewish humor.
“We have mutual speaking engagements,” Rabbi Allen said, noting that campus programs featuring survivors are always well-attended, drawing both Jews and non-Jews.
“These are some of our most popular programs,” he added. His students have heard from at least a dozen survivors. “In many cases, this has been the first time a student heard a survivor. To be able to provide that kind of a service for Jews and non-Jews is extraordinarily meaningful.”
After the guest speakers tell their stories, students are permitted to ask questions. Most ask the visitors how they got through the horrors of the war, ask what it was like for them afterwards, and then say “How can you be so nice, given what you’ve gone through?”
“I really loved the last group,” Rabbi Allen said. “They gave the kids important lessons. One speaker, Myriam Suserman from Hackensack, said she went into a [concentration] camp when she was 8, and that was the last time she saw her mother. ‘How nice are we to our moms?’ she asked the students, reminding them that they should not take things for granted. And ‘How often do you say, there’s nothing to eat in the house?’ she continued. ‘You don’t know what it means to really have nothing to eat.'”
“The students ask for these programs again and again,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want it.
“Many of the students are visibly moved. Once, when Myriam spoke, everyone was crying. It just made such a difference in how they view life and what’s important in life. Many said they came in a bad mood, heard the talk, and then said, ‘I have such a wonderful life; this person lost their entire family.’ On that level, it’s a big game changer.”
Some students stayed with Ms. Suserman an hour after the program to continue speaking with her, Rabbi Allen said. One student wrote an article about the experience for her school newspaper.
“For sure, relationships are formed,” he said. “Many survivors ask the students to stay in touch, to call with questions.”
Rabbi Allen said that one of his Hillel presidents, Josh Rubin, is planning to intern with JFS, helping to launch an initiative through which young adults and college students will volunteer to visit survivors and help them with chores such as shopping. The program will start at the end of the semester.
“I really hope for a good response,” he said. “We may focus on students who go to other universities, but are home over the summer.
“The partnership with JFS is important because it bridges the generation gap. It provides an opportunity for students, maybe for the last time, to speak with survivors about what they lived through. They can then tell their family and their own kids in the future that they personally heard these stories.”
The survivors, in turn, get to talk about what happened, ensuring that future generations will not forget.
“We’re able to provide an environment for them to tell their stories,” he said.
He is surprised “that I can hear the same stories and still cry,” Rabbi Allen continued. “You would think it gets old. But it doesn’t.” In addition, he said, “it really strikes me how they are not bitter, angry people, despite what they went through.
“Instead of it making them angry and hateful, they’ve become very conscious about how to treat others, what not to take for granted.”
Melanie Lester, JFS’s community outreach coordinator, said that CafÃ© Europa members speak with younger students as well, primarily at Hebrew schools. To prepare students for these visits, Ms. Lester meets with them to “talk about how they feel about survivors,” help them practice their interviewing skills, and reassure them.
“I tell them that that the survivors are used to telling their stories, and I encourage them to ask questions, not just about the war years, but about their lives before and after.”
Ms. Lester said that the number of speakers has been dwindling, primarily for health reasons. Now, she said, she has a group of four or five men and women who are both comfortable telling their stories and able to do it.
With younger children, Ms. Lester said she tries to stress that survivors are not necessarily those who lived in concentration camps.
“I ask them, ‘What do you think of when you think of the Holocaust?’ I want them to understand that there were so many different ways that people suffered.”
After the visits, she meets with students and survivors to find out what they gained from the experience.
“It’s gratifying to hear from students what they’re going to do with this experience,” she said. “I encourage them to do a write-up, not so much the survivor’s story but how the experience changed them and what they’ll do with the information.” She then gives these write-ups to the survivors.
Ms. Lester said that for some Hillel students, these visits mark the first time they’ve met a survivor.
This is important not only because they will then be in a better position to confront Holocaust deniers, “but I try to impress on them that this is a great gift they’re getting from the survivors. They’re the last generation that will hear this. I ask them how they feel talking about a horrible experience, and then ask why they think the speakers are coming here to talk about it. They must be really motivated.”
BCC student Nomi Eijkenaar, who lives in Cresskill, said that as an Israeli, she knew a lot about the Holocaust before hearing Ms. Suserman speak. Despite that, “it was most definitely important to hear the stories,” she said. “I have spoken to [survivors] many times before, but every time it shocks me again and reminds me how horrible it really was.”
The program, she added, “brought me to tears, and other students as well…. I also think it had an impact on non-Jews, because my friends who are not Jewish, and read the article I wrote about the survivor, were shocked and amazed.”
Her article will appear in the May edition of BCC’s paper, The Torch.
“Many people find it hard to believe in things if they do not have real, live proof,” Ms. Eijkenaar continued. “Having a survivor tell the stories is the best way to make sure people truly understand that it did happen.”
She said that hearing talks such as these “makes you realize how lucky and privileged you are to have what you have. It also makes you understand the importance of being proud to be Jewish” and remembering what occurred.
“I also think that telling the stories enhances the survivors’ lives because it helps show them that people do care and want to know what happened, to be able to give them the respect they deserve for being able to survive such horrible circumstances.”