As more survivors disappear with each passing year, children and grandchildren in the tri-state region are revitalizing efforts to pick up the reigns in promoting Holocaust awareness.
At 84, Charles Middleberg could enjoy retirement by relaxing at his home in Evesham, N.J. Instead, the South Jersey resident makes daily visits to schools, churches and clubs — sometimes more than one a day — to share the incredible story of how he survived the Holocaust as a young boy in his native France.
Middleberg, who came to America in 1950, feels a great responsibility to tell his story — and to encourage his children to do the same.
“Sooner or later, I will not be able to do it anymore and I will not be here anymore,” said the retired electrical engineer and importer-exporter of household linens. “So it is extremely important that the next generation do this.”
Middleberg’s daughters, pharmacist Lynne Middleberg-Warszawski and social worker Brenda Pollack, both of Cherry Hill, N.J., are doing their part by helping to revitalize the Generations After the Shoah group under the auspices of the Goodwin Holocaust Museum and Education Center at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill.
The group was founded over a decade ago, but had become more focused on support than education. When local descendants recently began speaking to groups on their own about their heroic relatives, Goodwin staff and volunteers, including the Middlebergs, decided it was time to relaunch. They compiled a list of potential members and held a December meeting that drew about 50 people.
Nationally, more than a dozen groups are dedicated to carrying on the legacies of loved ones who survived the Holocaust. Locally, the Huntingdon Valley-based Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association counts some 200 members from across the area. The association plans to launch its own third-generation spin-off next month.
While the number of survivors able to share their experiences publicly is dwindling, demand for their programs is not, especially in New Jersey, where Holocaust education is mandated in public schools, Goodwin officials said.
The center, which coordinates survivors’ speaking engagements and classroom visits, reaches an estimated 25,000 students and adults each year. Helen Kirschbaum, education program director at the center, part of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, said the group works with up to 200 schools every year and multiple speakers are needed on some days. But her list of survivors currently numbers 30 or fewer.
JCRC’s executive director, David Snyder, said he knew of 13 Holocaust survivors in South Jersey who passed away in the last year. A quarter of them had been on the speakers’ list. That’s where children and other relatives come in.
“First-person testimonial is most compelling, but there’s a lot to be said for the personal connection that comes from being able to say ‘my mother, my brother, my sister, my cousin’ lived through this,” Snyder said.
In the case of lawyer Esther Dukes of Medford, N.J., it is an uncle whose story she recounts. Bela Elek was an assistant to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Dukes recently began telling Elek’s story at schools and at a synagogue, and said she’s hoping to do more.
Dukes said Wallenberg often left her uncle in charge of rescues after the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, saving about 200 people at a time. Two days after Wallenberg disappeared on Jan. 17, 1945, presumably at the hands of Russia’s Red Army, Elek was killed by members of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Nazi collaborators.
Dukes’ mother, who had been rescued by Elek while awaiting deportation to a concentration camp, married another Hungarian Holocaust survivor, Edward Dukes. They came to America in 1956, during the Hungarian revolution, with baby Esther.
Dukes became more interested in her heritage after her parents died in the late 1990s, visiting Budapest and traveling to Israel to meet Elek’s fiancée, Lily Greiner Gescheidt, now 100 and living in Haifa.
It’s important for people to know that there were Jewish rescuers, Dukes said, and that Europe’s Jews fought back during the Holocaust.
“If we don’t speak out, people will forget,” Dukes said, adding that keeping memories alive is a way to heal the pain of growing up with almost no extended family. “I miss my Uncle Bela, even though I never met him.”
Longtime Generations After member Eva Schlanger of Cherry Hill hopes to get at least a dozen more descendants actively involved — training them how to present survivors’ stories effectively, even if the subjects are not family members.
“I want to energize future generations and get them out in the public,” said Schlanger, whose parents, Edith and Philip Listman, were born in Prague and survived the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps. She has spoken locally at synagogues for Holocaust Remembrance Day and raises funds to support Holocaust education.
Kirschbaum noted that Generations After the Shoah members who are not comfortable with public speaking can do community outreach, volunteer at the Goodwin center’s annual March of Remembrance, sponsor programs and usher at Holocaust-themed events such as an annual community fundraiser — this year, the May 21 presentation of a new play, Warmth, at the Katz JCC.
As for Middleberg, he hopes his descendents, including four children and 12 grandchildren, will keep alive his legacy and that of his late wife, Mathilde, who passed away in 2009.
Middleberg was 9 when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940. Their landlord used to take the rubber tip off his wooden leg to make noise when the Nazis approached as a way of warning the family to hide in the attic. Middleberg’s parents sent him and his younger brother to the French countryside before they were deported themselves, leaving a trunk of heirlooms with their landlord for safekeeping.
Middleberg tells of reuniting with his father — and reclaiming their trunk of valuables — when he returned to Paris after the war. But his mother didn’t survive the death camp.
Middleberg went on to meet Mathilde, also a Parisian Jew who had hidden in the countryside during the Holocaust, at a French vocational school. Mathilde followed him to America, where they married.
One daughter, Pollack, said she plans to relate her late mother’s history, while the other, Middleberg-Warszawski, said she feels confident about telling their father’s story someday.
“I cry at the drop of a hat,” Middleberg-Warszawski said. “It will be difficult, but I would not forgive myself if I didn’t continue to tell it.”
Charles Middleberg says he’s proud of his daughters’ commitment. “My greatest fear is the story of the Holocaust will become just another page of history,” he said. “As long as we keep talking about it, we can’t ignore it. We must continue to keep it alive.”
To learn more about Generations After, contact hkirschbaum @jfedsnj.org or 856-751-9500, Ext. 1249. For more about the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association or its third-generation group launch event on May 1 at Temple Beth Ami in Philadephia, visit: cjhsa.org.