Are there limits to forgiveness? Do victims have the responsibility to overcome injustice and rise above resentment, or are there some crimes that can never be forgotten? These and other difficult questions were at the heart of a special International Holocaust Remembrance Day program hosted by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) Jan. 30 on Brookdale’s Lincroft campus.
The ceremony, held in honor of Chhange co-founder Dr. Seymour “Sy” Siegler, who passed away in October, centered on Simon Wiesenthal’s acclaimed book the The Sunflower, which details Wiesenthal’s experience as a concentration camp prisoner and his encounter with a dying Nazi solider, who begged the author’s forgiveness for his crimes against Jews.
A panel of Chhange members, Brookdale employees and former Brookdale faculty performed a dramatic reading of an adaptation The Sunflower, written by Siegler and retired Brookdale history professor Jack Needle. Following the reading, a panel of local Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors led the audience in a discussion of the book’s themes and explained their own opinions on “forgiving and forgetting” the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“My wife and I are both survivors; we have been traumatized by the Holocaust,” said Gerard Blumenthal, of Manalapan, who spent years imprisoned in concentration camps as a child before being liberated in 1945. “I used to have nightmares for the first 20 years, nightmares about the one and a half million children who perished. I have seen them die. I have seen them taken away from their mothers. I have seen them go to the gas chamber. How can I forget? How can I forgive? The answer is I can’t.
“It took me years to overcome the hate,” Blumenthal added. “But if I hated all my life, I wouldn’t be able to survive. Hate eats you alive…I tried very hard to forgive, but I never forgot. And I never will.”
Other panel members, including Holocaust survivor and Farmingdale resident Helena Flaum, said they have been able to make peace with the horrors of their past.
“When I left my father, he told me to stay alive. He said, ‘We need survivors to tell the world what happened, so it will never, ever happen again,'” said Flaum, the only survivor among her parents and four younger brothers. “I wanted to keep my word to my father. So in my case, I believe in forgiveness. I wanted to, and I did, give myself permission to go on living, remembering my family with my heart open and with love, not hatred. I wouldn’t allow myself to hate. It doesn’t mean that I have forgotten. Every morning when I open my eyes, I think about one of my baby brothers… But you have to keep love in your heart. Don’t allow hate to win.”
Some of the more than 100 local residents, Chhange volunteers and Brookdale students and faculty in attendance offered their own impressions on the question, including Neptune resident and Holocaust survivor Eva Wiener. Years ago, Wiener said, she was invited by a church organization to travel to Canada and receive an official apology on behalf of the Canadian government for its failure to accept Jewish refugees during World War II.
Ultimately, it was an offer Wiener had to turn down
“My response was that I, as an individual, cannot give absolution for someone else,” said Wiener, who fled Germany with 936 fellow refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in 1939. The boat was turned away by both Cuba and the U.S. before returning to Europe, where a quarter of the passengers would ultimately be killed.
“I can forgive you for what you did to me personally. If you slap me, I can forgive you. I cannot forgive your father for slapping my father. That’s not within my right.”
Personal responsibility, especially in regard to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and new presidential directives prohibiting refugees from entering the United States, was a key theme of the program as well. According to Chhange executive director Dale Daniels, it is hard not to draw comparisons between the Europe of the 1930’s and 40’s and the Middle East of today.
“Jewish refugees were unwanted. Anti-semitism was an accepted part of American life,” Daniels said. “By the spring of 1940, the borders were pretty much closed to European Jews. Many victims might have had an opportunity to live, had the United States been more willing to take in refugees.
“Today we are seeing a somewhat similar phenomenon,” Daniels added. “People are fearful of people from different religions, different backgrounds and different situations. One third of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were children. One third of the Syrian refugees today are children.”
As part of the program, Chhange members handed out contact information for local, state and federal elected officials, encouraging concerned residents to speak out against public policies they disagree with. Many in attendance also posed for photos holding up “We Remember” signs in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The ceremony also featured a video tribute to Siegler, a former Red Bank teacher and Brookdale psychology professor who co-founded Chhange in 1979. A lifelong advocate for education, social justice and youth enrichment programs, Siegler served as director of the center for nearly 40 years.
“He was very much in favor of interaction, of students talking to each other,” said Chhange director of education Jane Denny, a long-time associate of Siegler’s. “Sy would celebrate all students, and hope that they could interact and get to know each other and, ultimately, stand up for each other. I know he would be horrified by what is going on now in our nation. Not only because it echoes what has happened in the past, but because it is just wrong… Education for him was everything. He felt that education was the path to any positive solution that we were going to have in the world.”
Panel members for the ceremony included Renee Geller and Chhange board member Paul Fried, both second-generation descendants of Holocaust victims, and third-generation descendent Cinde Orlick, who serves as assistant to the Chhange director.
The dramatic reading was performed by retired history professor and Chhange co-founder Jack Needle; history professor Sherri West; English professor Floresta Jones; Amie Riva, daughter of Siegler; and Karen Finkelstein, digital media consultant for Chhange.