Over the years hundreds of survivors of the Holocaust have visited New Jersey classrooms, assemblies, and ceremonies to share their stories. They were the faces and voices of history, and to kids across the state they bore witness to a darker — almost unimaginable — epoch.
As time passes, the visitors are fewer. There were an estimated 5,000 Holocaust survivors living in New Jersey in 2005, according to official count. There are barely 2,000 now, a diminishing circle of mostly old men and women who can speak firsthand about what happened at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other concentration camps.
How to offset that inevitable winnowing was the focus of a gathering yesterday of more than 300 survivors and their families who met in a dining hall at Mercer County Community College to commemorate their own lives and reflect on how to keep those memories alive for generations ahead.
They are people like Joseph Rosenberg, an 84-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, who has spoken at colleges about his own experience in four different camps, how he escaped death by lying about his age, how his mother and brothers did not survive, how an inked number is still tattooed on his arm.
“When we speak, the kids ask intelligent questions, they are listening, they want to know,” said Rosenberg, a native of Hungary now living in Margate.
“The younger kids, with us a dying breed, they should know what happened to us,” he said. “They should know.”
New Jersey is a pioneer when it comes to Holocaust education, one of the earliest states that in the mid-1970s started to develop a curriculum for how the Holocaust is to be taught. Then in 1994, the Legislature made the subject a mandate for every public school to teach and every student to learn.
In between came the creation of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, now part of the state Department of Education. Under the leadership of director Paul Winkler, it has become a central force in not just keeping the Holocaust alive in schools, but also developing curriculum for other atrocities from Rwanda to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
And to hear Winkler speak, it is not just the passing of so many survivors that poses a threat but also the increasing pressure on schools with new testing and other accountability measures.
“My greatest fear is for subjects like the Holocaust, which are very difficult to test and measure,” he said. “Could they be put aside and not given the time? Of course that is a fear.”
But he said schools have thus far responded well, a sentiment echoed by other advocates yesterday. They said teachers make the commitment to cover the subject not just in exclusive lessons, but in discussions of everything from ancient history to modern-day prejudices and even anti-bullying.
“That’s how all this started, and people don’t realize that,” said Maud Dahme, a prominent speaker and advocate as a survivor from the Netherlands. “It was all bullying, and look what it led to.”
Dahme, a former member of the state Board of Education, has been among those who have gone to extraordinary lengths. She leads a trip each summer for educators to travel to Berlin, Krakow, Warsaw, and Amsterdam to see the history firsthand. Twenty-one teachers will go this year.
“I’m in schools all the time, and it’s very, very active,” she said. “I think in many ways it is self-sustaining through the power of it. But I don’t know what will happen when the eyewitnesses are no longer here.”
Of course, many of the stories have been memorialized in a variety of media. The Shoah Foundation has taken audio testimony from more than 50,000 survivors worldwide, in 57 languages, just one of countless projects documenting the events. Dahme said most schools even do their own recordings when a survivor like herself visits.
And there are those like Ben and Adam Danzger of Tenafly, two teenaged brothers who produced a documentary of students interviewing survivors across the region titled “L’Dor V’Dor,” or “From Generation to Generation.”
They said the Holocaust is taught in public schools, but not a whole lot beyond a specific unit in a social studies class, at least not in the grades they’ve been through. The state mandate only requires it be taught, not when or how.
“It’s something we wanted to keep alive as much as we can,” said Adam, an eighth grader in Tenafly.
The state’s Holocaust Commission has taken it’s own extra steps, too. Several years ago, it started a project connecting students with survivors individually and asking them to keep a promise.
In each meeting, the student makes a pledge to tell that survivor’s story in 2045, the 100-year anniversary of the liberation of the camps. Winkler said at least 1,500 students have signed the contract so far.
“I know in my heart that there will be kids carrying this out,” Winkler said. “This will happen.”
But yesterday was also about imploring the second- and third- and now fourth-generation children of survivors to wear the mantle as well. They are well-organized already, with eight different second-generation groups across the state, and of those attending yesterday, it’s a responsibility they readily accepted.
“When we don’t have the witnesses any more, now I am witness to the witnesses,” said William Reinholtz, a South Brunswick engineer whose parents were survivors and now has two children of his own.