Two years ago, when the seventh-grade students at Glassboro Intermediate School were asked to write nominating essays for the New Jersey Hall of Fame, most of the kids picked athletes and celebrities, along with a few parents and relatives.
Isaiah Elia instead nominated Maud Dahme, a Holocaust survivor who travels to schools across the state to make sure students learn not just her story but understand the heritage of hatred and the heroism it can evoke.
“Her dedication to spreading awareness of the Holocaust has resulted in Holocaust education being required in all school districts,” Isaiah wrote. “I chose this nominee because of her devotion to educating younger generations about this crucial time in world history and her belief in the equality of all people.”
As a Jewish child in Holland in the 1940s, Dahme and her sister went into hiding for three years to escape capture by the Nazis before emigrating to New Jersey with her parents in 1950.
Isaiah won the essay contest, one of two winners out of 8,000 essays submitted that year. And with his help, Dahme will be given the “Unsung Hero” award among 12 people named to the New Jersey Hall of Fame today at a ceremony in Asbury Park.
The other names on the list may be more familiar — jazz giant Dizzy Gillespie; author Dorothy Parker, NBA great Patrick Ewing, former Gov. James Florio, and the late actor James Gandolfini — but the 78-year-old Dahme stands shoulder to shoulder with all of them.
Two or three times a week for much of the past 30 years, Dahme has told her story before groups big and small. Yesterday, it was more than 300 people at County College of Morris. A day before, she was in Hackettstown.
Interviewed yesterday as she prepared for today’s events, Dahme said that when she heard about Isaiah‘s winning essay two years ago, it touched her as much as any of her many interactions with students each year.
“Usually people are nominated by organizations or adults, but here, it was a seventh-grader,” Dahme said. “It was wonderful. Usually when we are speaking to kids, you wonder if they hear you.”
Isaiah’s mother, Tina Spadafora, a special education teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer, said even at a young age, her son was more interested in humanity than in celebrity.
“[Dahme] was so different from the others, and he really connected with her,” Spadafora said. “He’s an open-minded kind of kid, and I think her story resonated with him. She had such a positive message about all the people that helped her.”
Dahme’s story is well-known in some circles. She was a leader of New Jersey’s pioneering Commission on Holocaust Education, and the Hunterdon County resident also rose to prominence as a long-time member of the State Board of Education, including as its president.
But her commitment to Holocaust education knows no bounds. In addition to her speaking engagements, over the past decade she has led an annual tour to Europe with New Jersey educators to see first-hand the places where she and her sister hid for three years under the protection of a network of families. Eventually, they were reunited with their parents, who themselves also had gone into hiding.
“We’re now the only ones left: the children,” Dahme said yesterday. “Everyone else is gone, and we’re the only ones left to tell their stories.”
After Isaiah won the contest in the middle-school category, he invited Dahme to speak to his class. And with Isaiah now a 10th grader at Glassboro High School, the two will see each other again tonight, both as honored guests for the induction ceremony at the Asbury Park’s Convention Hall.
Dahme said each inductee will get two minutes to speak, and she looks forward to using her time to tell another child’s story — that of Isaiah and his essay.