|Diane Herzog and Michael Leob, who are among the children of George and Martha Rich, surrounded by participants of the Eternal Flame course. Mr. Leob, in center, with his arm around his sister, Diane. Chabad’s Rabbi Orenstein is at the left, and its Rabbi Drizin at the right.|
The Eternal Flame Holocaust education program – a pilot project funded by the George and Martha Rich Foundation – got off to a good start this year, using interactive workshops to teach some 20 children about the human costs of intolerance.
The venture – now centered at Valley Chabad in Woodcliff Lake but slated to expand – “is about much more than just teaching,” said Michael Leob, son of George and Martha Rich and a trustee of the foundation, which George and Martha Rich established in 1992.
The nonprofit foundation, he said, was created not only for Holocaust education but also for using that education as a basis for learning to prevent genocide and intolerance at every level and toward any ethnic group.
“The foundation’s goals reflect George and Martha Rich’s values,” Mr. Leob said. Martha Rich, “like Eva Schloss” – Anne Frank’s stepsister who soon will visit the community as a guest speaker – “was an Auschwitz survivor, which made it important for the foundation to fund that evening.”
The grant funding the Eternal Flame program was made by Mr. Leob and his wife, Kathy, of Woodcliff Lake, and Diane and Robert Herzog, Mr. Leob’s sister and brother-in-law, who live in Paramus.
Using techniques such as social media, discussion groups, and visits with survivors, the Eternal Flame project aims to “provide the information but not be dogmatic. The goal is still to spread the word about tolerance, but [the Holocaust] is such a serious topic, we want to make it as easy as possible.”
Mr. Leob said the foundation chose Chabad to run the program not for religious reasons but because “they’re very good with kids in teenage programs. The survivors are dying off. We need to develop something for the next generation.”
Eternal Flame is envisioned as a “kids with kids” program rather than as a traditional classroom teaching experience. Mr. Leob sees it as a venue where the kids can make friends and then learn together with them. Weekly meetings are held on a variety of subjects, the children are introduced to two or three survivors, and students are taken on a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., visiting such sites as the Holocaust Museum and Capitol Hill.
After attending sessions from February through April, students are asked to make presentations on what they have learned.
Mr. Leob said that while he originally hoped to have a first class of 10 students, the program became “oversubscribed” almost immediately, leading to a class of 20. Additional funding was made available to accommodate all the enrollees. Students have already signed up for next year.
“We originally agreed to fund the program for a couple of years and then to evaluate it,” he said. It’s already very successful and we’ve received a lot of outside donations. We hope to raise more money and our foundation will continue to support this worthwhile endeavor.”
Eternal Flame also has a public component, according to Mr. Leob, who worked with Chabad’s Rabbi Dov Drizin and Rabbi Yosef Orenstein to plan the program. He hopes to get parents involved by holding public events several times a year.
On October 27, the foundation is bringing Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor who also is Anne Frank’s stepsister, to address the community. Ms. Schloss, who survived Auschwitz, has written several books about her experiences during and after the war. Her family emigrated first to Belgium and then to the Netherlands shortly after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. In May 1944, the Geiringers were betrayed, captured by the Nazis, and sent to the concentration camp.
Her father and brother died in the camp, but she and her mother were freed by Russian troops in 1945. They returned to Amsterdam. Her mother later married Otto Frank – the two families had known each other before internment – and Ms. Schloss resumed her schooling, later studying at the University of Amsterdam. Ms. Schloss – the subject of James Still’s play “And then they came for me: Remembering the world of Anne Frank” – is a co-founder of the Anne Frank Trust UK. She now lives in London.
In an email, Ms. Schloss stressed the importance of teaching everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, about the Holocaust. “Only through knowledge about what and how things have happened can we try to prevent persecution in the future,” she wrote. “It is not just tolerance, but accepting different people as equal.”
Survivors are crucial in the education effort, she said. “Definitely, survivors bring history alive and tell details, and it becomes real to the audience. I hear that all the time from my audiences.”
She noted, however, that even these encounters cannot be guaranteed to be successful.
“To some people, whatever they hear or see – nothing can change their attitude,” she said. “I hope, however, that many young people will start to think about different things and widen their horizon. I think it is important also to go for instance on the March of the Living. I have heard very powerful stories about that.”
Mr. Leob said the cause of education was very important to his parents, who both were survivors and both were involved in the wider Jewish community.
“That was their thing,” he said. “My mother had a scholarship fund at Metrowest, sending non-Jewish teachers to Israel and Yad Vashem so they could come back and teach about the Holocaust.” She also played a significant role in publicizing and supporting the Paper Clip Project started by youngsters in Whitwell, Tenn.
As part of a school project on intolerance, middle school students collected what grew to be millions of paper clips, representing the victims of the Holocaust. They later created a memorial in a cattle car used to transport Jews to the death camps. Ms. Rich was a guest speaker at the opening of the memorial.
A tireless Holocaust educator, in 2004 Gov. Jim McGreevey appointed her to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. Interestingly, Mr. Leob said that while in her later years his mother began to talk frequently to high school and college students about her experiences during the Holocaust, “in the beginning she didn’t talk to me about it. She wanted to protect the kids, didn’t want them to know about such horrific things.”
Mr. Leob said a film about the Paper Clip Project was screened for the community as part of the Eternal Flame program. It drew 150 people. Students also made their presentations there, receiving awards for their participation. “The experience was incredible,” he said, noting that students each received a book chronicling all the activities they had done.
Mr. Leob runs the foundation with his sister, Diane Herzog, who introduced him to the Chabad organization. “We talk all the time,” he said, adding that he hopes to expand the project to central New Jersey as well as to Florida. “She takes an active interest in it.”
Diane’s husband, Bob Herzog, stressed that the program is “larger than a teen initiative. It’s about bringing people’s awareness to the Holocaust, and relating it to where we are today.”
Calling his late mother-in-law “a totally giving person,” Mr. Herzog said she gave freely of her time to speak about the Shoah. In addition, he said, George and Martha Rich were initial benefactor of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
“They gave of themselves – time, expertise, as well as financially,” he said. “They believed that one person can make a difference.”
George Rich, who now lives in Manhattan, long has been active in Jewish causes. A board member of the Joint Distribution Committee, in the late 1990s, he oversaw JDC’s efforts in the former Soviet Union.
“He went on numerous trips to see how funds were being spent on elderly Jews in need,” Mr. Herzog said, noting that when he got to the United States, his father-in-law started an eyeglass frame business that eventually grew. He became very successful.
“He was a self-made man, but he never forgot his roots,” Mr. Herzog said.
Diane Herzog remembers that her mother did not speak to her about the Holocaust when she was growing up.
“When I was watching ‘Schindler’s List,’ I started to ask a lot of questions,” she said. “She would say, ‘That’s enough for one time.’ Apparently it was very draining.” Ms. Herzog said she doesn’t know the impetus for her mother’s later willingness to speak more, and more publicly, about the Shoah.
Mr. Leob said he is confident that the Eternal Flame program will bear fruit.
“Instead of just donating to different organizations, we wanted to do something that would incorporate my parent’s legacy. Money is the easiest thing, but it was more than just money. I’m 100 percent certain that the program will have some impact in the future. We have to go with that assumption. We’ve got to do what we can do.”