“It was good,” said Yalanin, an eighth grader at the school, after hearing the two survivors speak. “The feelings of what they really had to go through, like running through the woods, trying to stay alive and stuff, is crazy.”
The two survivors visited as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey, the largest Jewish philanthropy group in the state. New Jersey currently mandates Holocaust education for kids in grades K through 12.
Fred Heyman told the audience that he vaguely remembered the fireworks and parades in Berlin on Jan. 30, 1933, the day Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor. He was three and a half.
He remembers on the first day at a Jewish school, after the Nuremburg Laws were passed, being bullied by classmates who called him “a Jew.” As a Jewish youth, he wasn't allowed to own a bicycle or a radio, or even go to the movies.
He recalled going through his neighborhood, seeing anti-Semitic graffiti, and then his synagogue and school in flames during Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass,” Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when German nationals destroyed Jewish homes and businesses after a Polish Jew fatally shot a German diplomat.
His mother rushed him to bed as a teen when she discovered the Gestapo police were looking for him, telling him to feign having a fever.
“What you learn in a classroom, keep something in mind,” Heyman, now a Morristown resident, told the kids. “Every survivor's story is different. What's you're learning about the Holocaust is history. I lived through it.”
Hanna Keselman was around Heyman's age when Hitler first came to power in Germany. However, her experience during the Holocaust was far different.
“My parents realized it was no longer safe to be Jews in Germany,” Keselman, now a Springfield resident, said. “And they decided to leave.”
Her family moved to Alsace, a suburb in France. The suburb had people who spoke both German and French, and also contained many Jews.
The family later moved to Paris for four years. But that wasn't safe enough from Hitler's advances, because the Nazis eventually occupied France.
“My parents said to me that I had to be sent away, because war was imminent,” Keselman said. “I, of course, didn't want to do it. I didn't want to be separated from them. But they told me all the children of my age would have to be sent away to be protected when the war came.”
Her parents placed her on a train with other children to Switzerland. Upon arrival, Keselman lived with adopted families.
Eventually she settled back in France, spending years in different children’s homes.
She later found out that her father had escaped from a train headed toward the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Hanna was later sent by train to meet both parents in Nice, France. However, the war was still going on.
“I was eight years old when I left them, and I met them again when I was 12,” she said. “We were really strangers to each other.” Her father had lost half his weight in concentration camps, and her mother had endured beatings from French police in an effort to find her father.
The happy reunion was short lived, as the Italian army later arrested the family, placing them in a village in the French Alps.
After conflict again separated them, Keselman reunited with her mother. But her father was killed in a concentration camp weeks before its liberation.
Learning from history
“We really have to learn our history, not to repeat it, and be upstanders as well,” said Barbara Wind, the Holocaust council director for the Jewish Federation, explaining to the children why Holocaust education is important. “To stand up against any injustice. We all have to make sure we stop it when we see it happening.”
“They need to get the first-hand account,” said Nichole Tullo, a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teacher at JFK who had contacted the Jewish Federation for them to come. “I think meeting in person makes the story more real for them.”
Tullo said the survivors’ stories resonated with her students. “Some of them said they were crying during the presentation,” she said. “They were surprised from the stories. I want them to continue to speak about it, and learn their history, so history does not repeat itself.”
“It's really amazing,” said Kevin, a sixth grader who attended the event. “I really wanted to know about this. I'm glad to see some of the survivors from the Holocaust.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org