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Monday, September 16, 2019

Imagine a one-day conference with over 50 speakers, assembled to address the concepts and imperative of tolerance, the global and social wages of war, tyranny and other inhumane behaviors that they personally experienced. One would think there could not possibly be time in a single day to give voice to each person, each story. This program, however, proved otherwise.

The Robert R. Lazar Middle School in Montville, New Jersey, has put on this same program every other year, together with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest and other organizations. These amazing speakers have shared their journeys and stories about how they survived, responded and grew from their unbelievable challenges, and what they are doing now to imprint their important messages upon the world.

Of the 50-plus speakers, Holocaust survivors represented nearly a quarter of the roster. A booklet distributed for the program provided a biography and historical synopsis for each speaker. The booklet is replete with riveting stories of the speakers’ diverse and harrowing experiences, including everything from slavery to incarceration, capture, torture and terror, narrow escapes from every imaginable (and some beyond imagination) predicament. The speakers included war veterans from numerous countries; journalists from tyrannical government countries; survivors from later genocides like Rwanda; 9/11 survivors and responders; Alison Crowther, mother of the well-known and greatly revered 9/11 rescuer, “man in the red bandanna,” who perished when the tower collapsed; WWII concentration camp liberators; refugees from Syria; survivors from domestic mass violence like Sandy Hook and the Boston marathon bombing; parents of children lost to suicide; an anti-bullying victim/advocate; and LGBTQ leaders.

The power of their experiences condensed into the space of this community middle school was palpable; one could “feel” it within the microcosm of each classroom, occupied by one speaker after another all day long, punctuated by the class-change signal tones every 40 minutes or so. Many speakers spoke twice, so nearly 100 stories and messages reverberated throughout the classrooms and auditorium over the course of the day.

Speakers and visitors were greeted at the entrance by huge banners of welcome, appreciation and respect. The hallways were lined with pertinent and riveting quotes by world-renowned authors, dignitaries, philosophers, politicians, doctors, judges, playwrights and musicians. No matter where you went, your senses were filled with the overarching theme of these living lessons, voices, visions and values.

Certainly compelling was the density of the Holocaust survivor presence. Erika Sauerhoff, a hidden child Holocaust survivor in France, spoke twice. After being moved between several safe but temporary locations, she was ultimately concealed near the Swiss border by a Christian family until she was returned to her birth family after the war. She estimated the time frame to be about five years, from ages 2 to 7.

Rather than speak, Sauerhoff invited student volunteers to ask questions. Through a slide presentation, they “witnessed” the progression from government oppression to eventual and forced hiding, running, capture, criminal mistreatment and genocide. She asked the students how they would feel and what they would think under similar circumstances, personalizing the experience for each student. Not surprisingly, both of her sessions ended with students not just applauding, but shedding tears, sharing hugs and expressing thanks.

By Ellie Wolf