SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange and Maplewood Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Committee sponsored the 42nd annual remembrance service at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in South Orange on Sunday, May 5, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ Holocaust Council. The event was co-hosted by the First Presbyterian and Trinity Church of South Orange.
The service opened with the haunting melodies of the movie theme from “Schindler’s List,” played by violin soloist Joseph Discher. Following this, Margie Freeman and Albert Gottlieb, both of Kol Rina Independent Minyan in South Orange, blew the shofar, a traditional Jewish trumpet made from a ram’s horn.
Additional music was provided by the Voices in Harmony Choir of Essex County and the St. Cecilia singers of Our Lady of Sorrows Church.
In his welcoming remarks, the Rev. Brian Needles, of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, encouraged the audience both to reflect on what they were doing to promote social justice, and to intentionally act in the furtherance of social justice.
“What am I doing to promote justice? What am I doing to challenge intolerance and discrimination?” he asked. “Let us all choose one thing today that we will commit to making a difference in.”
Each year the service is also an opportunity to present the Sister Rose Thering Holocaust Education Award, which highlights individuals who work to educate the community about the realities of the Holocaust. Before her death, Thering was a professor at Seton Hall University who worked tirelessly in the fight against anti-Semitism and to promote Holocaust education.
This year’s recipients were Janet Bustrin and Suzanne Ryan, both English and language arts teachers at Columbia High School who collaborated to create a robust Holocaust education unit for their students.
In addition to books, videos and presentations from survivors, Bustrin and Ryan’s students have for the past four years participated in a day trip to Washington, D.C., through a partnership with the South Orange and Maplewood Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Committee and the Morris Rubell Holocaust Remembrance Journeys.
Founded by Michael Rubell to honor his father, the Holocaust Remembrance Journeys include a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Lincoln Memorial and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, along with the accompaniment of Holocaust survivors.
“I grew up in Arizona, and diversity for me was Hispanic/Latino and everybody else. That’s who and what I knew, but as a kid it never registered they were different, just friends and classmates,” Bustrin said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I was raised Protestant Methodist and everybody looked like each other and wore the same clothes and cooked the same food. It wasn’t until I was 17, and performing with group throughout Europe that I began to understand what targeted hate was, and that’s when I began to have a better understanding of prejudice and discrimination, and it sparked an interest in me.”
Bustrin’s travels at that time included visits to Majdanek and Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camps in Poland; this was also the beginning of her personal journey exploring targeted hate.
“In the Holocaust unit, some of the books that we read include: ‘Paper Hearts,’ by Meg Wiviott; ‘Night,’ by Elie Wiesel; ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ by Tadeusz Borowski; and ‘The Hiding Place,’ by Corrie Ten Boom. This way the students are getting a 360 viewpoint of what it was like; a Jewish perspective, a Christian perspective and a political prisoner,” she said. “When we have the trip to D.C., usually one or two survivors are on the trip too, and the students give them such rapt attention and are so eager to hear what they have to say. I feel that this is such an important topic and we need to understand what targeted hate is so that we can prevent it from happening again.”
The keynote speaker for the service was Stefanie Seltzer, a Holocaust survivor who founded the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. Seltzer immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1952, after living in seven different hiding places and a displaced persons camp. Her inspiration for starting her foundation came on the heels of an emotional meeting she attended in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s.
“In 1985, I went to a meeting of American Holocaust survivors that was convened by Dr. Judith Kestenberg for child survivors and I went to that and met people from all over the United States and Canada, but didn’t know a single person in the room,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We talked about the trauma we survived as children, and that many times people would discount our memories and tell us that we were too young to remember what happened. A psychologist in Los Angeles named Sarah Moscowitz was already meeting with groups of child survivors on the West Coast, so I asked her to give me the names of leaders of these types of groups in other parts of the country because I felt it important that we get together again.”
Seltzer said the first meeting of child survivors she organized was held at a hotel in Lancaster, Pa., and 174 people attended. Eventually they outgrew that location and went on to hold annual meetings in other locations throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and the cities of Prague, Amsterdam and Berlin.
“This started out as a healing process for us because we didn’t have anyone else to talk to, but we didn’t need any introductions to each other because we had all been through similar trauma. We have workshops led by mental health professionals on various topics, and we have added information sessions for younger generations to meet with survivors,” she said. “We have had as many as 900 at our conference in Israel in 2007. Second and third generations of survivors also join, and we hope that the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will continue telling our story and fighting for a better world.”
Eve Morawski, a member of the South Orange and Maplewood Interfaith Holocaust Committee, was so moved the first time she heard Seltzer speak four years ago at the College of St. Elizabeth that she made it a point to stay in contact with her.
Morawski, who is a longtime Maplewood resident and member of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, has been involved with the committee since its inception and is devoted to its mission of educating others about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“The energy of the committee is very passionate, committed, dedicated and there is a real love for what we do. We want to educate people. The kids are deeply touched by the museum trip; by the end of the day they have had an introduction to something that many of them would never have otherwise experienced,” she said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “It’s not in their family history, perhaps not of interest to them since it happened 75 years ago so it seems ancient to them, but when I talk to schools, I tell them my mother was their age when she was kidnapped.”
In planning this year’s event, Morawski knew Seltzer would be the perfect fit to speak at the service and share her moving story about her experiences in Poland.
“I knew that she was hidden by Christian families before she immigrated, and our host this year is a Catholic church, so to me it seemed a good fit. We were blessed because she also spends part of the year on the West Coast and her schedule aligned to allow her to come. I told her in advance that it was an interfaith service and the community is very involved in it every year,” Morawski said. “We spoke afterwards and she expressed to me how surprised she was about the diversity and number of those in attendance and she was very moved. That’s what this is all about for me; I’m much more about our similarities than our differences.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier, and Courtesy of Dorit Tabak and Eve Morawski