WEST WINDSOR – With vivid memories of the Warsaw ghettos to the Auschwitz death camp, local Holocaust survivors shared their experiences with a group of Mercer County Community College (MCCC) history students who had the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the tragedy of the Holocaust.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for many students,” said History Professor Dr. Craig Coenen. “This may be the last generation of students who can sit down and talk one-on-one with Holocaust survivors.”
The Mercer County Holocaust-Genocide Resource Center (MCHGRC) hosted a survivor’s luncheon on Nov. 19, where four area residents who personally experienced the horror of the Nazi occupation of Europe recounted their experiences. Their stories ranged from enduring years of forced labor in concentration camps to escapes in the dark of night under threat of immediate execution, and even a soldier who stormed the beach at Normandy to begin the liberation.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” said Jack Zaifman, who was sent to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp. “I survived because I believe in God very much.”
Zaifman recalled how he would be in a line with other prisoners, with Josef Mengele – the sadistic death camp physician – standing at the front of the line. He would point his thumb either left or right. One direction you live, the other you die.
Zaifman said prisoners would be handed a bar of soap, presumably to take a shower, when in reality, they were being sent to a gas chamber. He personally was forced to serve on a squad that collected bodies for the crematorium.
“The agony of the whole thing was unimaginable,” he said.
Zaifman survived Auschwitz only to be sent to another notorious Nazi death camp: Dachau.
Sydney Weinstein had a different perspective on the Nazi occupation of Europe. As a solider in the United States military, he was among the thousands who stormed the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion, and liberated many villages as the Allies pushed across France and into Germany. But many soldiers never made it to shore, cut down by a hail of machine gun fire.
“It was horrible, horrifying,” Weinstein said. “But I made it. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Dr. Vera Goodkin, MCCC Professor Emeritus and member of the MCHGRC Advisory Commission, was rescued during the Holocaust by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped her and her family escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Hungary through muddy fields on a cold rainy night.
“People put themselves in mortal danger to help others cross the border into Hungary,” Goodkin said. “You must remember what unites us – not hatred, but our common humanity.”
Coenen noted that the stories of Holocaust survivors, each of which is unique, carry common themes: perseverance, a will to live, and good fortune.
“So many times it was a matter of luck to survive,” Coenen said. “That’s what made a survivor. And for a lot of survivors, that is something they have to live with.”
Mercer County Holocaust-Genocide Resource Center
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