Holocaust survivors help students stand up to antisemitism
It started with Molly, then a 6th-grader at Cedar Drive Middle School in Colts Neck, who was the target of some very personal antisemitism. Looking for help in guiding her daughter, her mother brought Molly to Chhange: Center for Holocaust, Human Rights & Genocide Education.
“When Molly and her mom came in that first time, Molly never looked up or said a word,” remembers Dale Daniels, the nonprofit’s first executive director. “She was too shy to even speak. We knew we had to do something to help her, and others in the same situation.”
Located on the Brookdale Community College campus since 1979, Chhange has always been focused on educating students, teachers and community members to stand up against antisemitism, racism and all forms of hate.
For years, it had offered schools opportunities to meet Holocaust survivors living in the area so they could hear directly about their experiences before, during and after the Holocaust. These generally involved an individual survivor addressing a classroom full of students.
Daniels felt Molly needed more, so she introduced her to Helena Flaum, who was about Molly’s age when the Germans invaded her native Poland.
“Helena went through so much, yet she maintained a positive outlook, which she credited with helping her survive,” Daniels said. “As Helena often said, ‘When there is hate in your heart, there is no peace of mind.’ She helped Molly understand that hate is corrosive. That you mustn’t let it destroy you, that we can forgive people, but we can never forget what they did.”
Molly took Helena’s message to heart, so much so that when she was attacked again the next semester, she spoke up for herself.
“When I heard about the second incident, I knew it was time to involve the school,” Daniels said. “I reached out to Cedar Drive Principal Colin Rigby, who could not have been more receptive.”
The program Daniels proposed involved inviting survivors to lunch. Each would sit at a table with eight or nine students and a teacher and would share what their life had been like before, during and after the Holocaust. Then, over a pizza lunch, the students would be able to ask any questions they could think of, initiating a dialogue that would resonate with them as it had with Molly.
“This was far more interactive than a classroom presentation. And it was the beginning of a program that continues to this day. The objective is the same: that the students, having heard from the survivors themselves, learn to stand up for others targeted by hate. The one change, though, is that now we have fewer survivors and more of their children recounting their parents’ experiences.”
“That began a special relationship between Chhange and Cedar Drive Middle School,” said Susan Yellin, Chhange’s co-director of Special Projects.
“I am forever grateful to Chhange for taking me under their wing as a timid 13-year-old girl dealing with antisemitism,” said Molly, who now studying veterinary medicine. “Their guidance and support, and the close relationships I formed with Helena and other survivors, helped me become strong and self-confident.
“Helena also taught me,” she said, “that I and my fellow students had to recount their history when she and the other survivors are no longer here to speak for themselves.”
The two remained in close contact until Helena’s death earlier this year.
Although only a few schools participate in Lunch with a Survivor, Chhange offers other programs involving middle- and high-school students. One—the Student Art Installation—was the brainchild of Chhange volunteer Arlene Smelson, a retired art educator and award-winning artist who is now an adjunct professor at Brookdale.
“A team of us, including Dale, Susan and longtime volunteer and board member Mimi Werbler, developed a program built around the reality that students learn using all their senses, including visual,” Smelson said.
“In January, we meet educators from throughout the area. We discuss the topic, give them the resources and tools to explore it, as well as lesson plans to use in their classrooms,” she said. “Then their students spend about eight weeks learning about the topic and working on a collaborative art project that is ultimately displayed in a gallery on the Brookdale campus.
“Each year’s project is slightly different,” she added. “For this year’s theme, ‘Ukraine: Courage in Difficult Times,’ I suggested having the students work on quilts, which have such significance across cultures and continents. They tell stories through symbols and images.”
Each group is also asked to write an “artist’s statement,” a few words to offer a glimpse into what they hoped to express. These are then gathered into a catalog that includes the statement accompanied by full-color reproductions of their works.
“Arlene and the team gave us the what but not the how,” said Matthew Miranda, an art educator concluding his first year teaching at Rumson’s Forrestdale middle school. “Each educator then interpreted our assignment in our own way. We teachers asked for basic guidelines, then let the topic inspire us and our students.
“It can be tough to have a dialogue with students about challenging topics,” he said. “Art can sometimes provide a path.”
“Art often engages students who would not otherwise have a way to express themselves, certainly about nuanced or complicated topics,” said Chhange Executive Director Asya Darbinyan. “That’s why this exhibit is so important.”
The official opening of the student art installation is always timed to occur during another of Chhange’s annual programs, the Colloquium, a full day of learning for hundreds of teachers and students from high and middle schools across the state. After listening to a keynote speaker, the students break into workshops and interact with speakers on a wide range of human rights issues.
Some are Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors. Others represent the LGBTQ+ community, people who have experienced bullying, and other human rights issues. Then they get to see the art exhibit.
C.J. Burtnick, who has taught social studies to 7th and 8th graders at Cedar Drive for many years, said, “Chhange came to our school through Molly. Before then, I had never met a Holocaust survivor.
“Now we do so much with Chhange. Each of my classes visits their amazing exhibit, ‘Journey’s Beyond Genocide: The Human Experience.’ We use their Survivor Suitcases, mock luggage filled with an individual’s personal scrapbook, testimony and a few photos—some of documents such as ID cards and work permits, and some of family members. We have participated in the student art exhibit for years. And we always look forward to Lunch with a Survivor.”
Does she think Chhange had an impact on Cedar Drive students?
“Now they have been exposed to the ramifications of hate,” Burtnick said. “Everything at Chhange focuses on survivors and the impact hate had on their lives.
“So many students—not just in our school, in every school—are dealing with tension and depression and anxiety. At Chhange, students learn about resilience and hope. They learn that others have experienced great pain and have gone on to lead positive lives, and that they can, too.”
JOANN ABRAHAM began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.