MORRISTOWN, NJ - In 2012, experts estimated that there were less than 500,000 Holocaust survivors still alive on earth. Sadly, survivors were dying of old age at a rate of one every 45 minutes. As that genocide recedes in time, we face the inevitability that our firsthand witness to the atrocity – the survivors, as well as, the veterans who liberated them – will soon be gone forever.
Sally Levine, the executive director of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, quotes one survivor who embraced her after sharing a personal story and poignantly remarked, “When I can no longer speak, you will have to be my voice.” Though students at The Peck School wish many more healthy years for the 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who spoke to them this week, they would no doubt concur that when Edith Farben can no longer speak, they can be her voice.
Edith Farben joined a special assembly of Peck’s 6th through 8th-grade students to give them a lesson no textbook, oral history, video, website, or news story could provide. She gave them the lesson of an eyewitness account. For 45 minutes, as her heart-rending story unfolded, their Peck education was elevated beyond academics.
Farben’s clear memory, her palpable recollection of detail, and her communication not only of the hopelessness of her internment but of the small gestures of kindness encountered, will no doubt remain in these students memories for a lifetime. A visitor like Ms. Farben requires significant preparation, and in addition to enlisting the resources of Peck’s Upper and Lower School Psychologists, Peck’s English and history departments prepared them for her visit. Each grade level spent considerable time learning the background and context of the Holocaust, viewing documentaries, writing in journals and asking essential questions, such as, “Who is responsible?”
Edith Farben was born in Velká Polana, Czechoslovakia (Slovakia) on April 9, 1925. Her family was moved into the ghetto in Munkás in 1944 and later deported by train to Auschwitz, where she was separated from her brother and father, who she would never see again. Her belief that she survived is due to the fact that she was nimble-fingered, and able to work quickly sorting clothes. Her amazing account of this period is captured in oral histories available online and in this video. Remarkably, she was reunited with her mother, brother, and two sisters, after the war, then married in 1945, and emigrated to the US in 1947.
A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League provides a frightening testimony to the importance of Holocaust education. They conducted interviews with 53,100 adults in 101 countries and the Palestinian territories. Slightly more than one-third said they had never heard of the Holocaust. Fewer than half of those under age 35 were aware of its occurrence.
When asked by a Peck student during the assembly, why she shares such a painful story, Mrs. Farben replied, “I want you kids to remember this because it happened to us. But look how many other people are suffering. It doesn’t make any difference what religion, what color, what country, we are all human. We should al be allowed to live in freedom. So just remember this as you grow up and go into adulthood. Don’t say it’s not going to happen here. It’s not going to happen to me. Because you never know. Listen. Act. Speak up. So just don’t forget this.”
In an article in the Atlanta Jewish Times, Norbert Friedman, author of the book, Sun Rays at Midnight: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Life, Before, During and After the Holocaust,” implores, “The narrators are disappearing. The narrative changes. Those who have known survivors or heard them speak become the witnesses of witnesses. There is much for the world to learn. The lessons of the Holocaust are eternal.”
Thanks to Edith Farben, perhaps students at The Peck School can now become the witnesses of witnesses.