MONTVILLE, NJ - Fred Heyman of Morristown, New Jersey, was born in Germany in 1929.
“I was your age at one time,” Heyman told eighty sophomores at Montville Township High School on Friday, April 5. “I did what you do.”
He shared childhood memories of riding his bike, going to school, hanging with friends and playing with his dog. But Heyman’s childhood coincided with Hitler’s rise to power. By the time he was three years old, the Nazi party had begun to take control of the German government. Throughout his childhood, laws were enacted to restrict the movements of Jewish people. Heyman remembers how the laws made it illegal for Jewish people to own a bike, have a pet, go to school and play with friends. He explained that once the Nazi party took control of the German government, synagogues, schools and places of business were burned, windows were shattered and stores were shut down. Teachers were not allowed to teach Jewish children. People were arrested if they supported Jewish-owned businesses or spoke with Jewish neighbors. The threat of violence and violence was common place as SS officers and other German citizens upheld racist Nazi laws.
Heyman is a Holocaust survivor. His mother was Christian and his father was Jewish.
In the MTHS Media Center, as he began his story of survival, Heyman went to the white board. There he wrote the letters: H-A-T-E.
“I will not say this word, and I do not want you to ever say this word,” the nearly 90-year-old survivor told to the students of Jana Lenox and Andy Cecala's English classes.
“This word,” he said, pointing to H-A-T-E on the board, “it is a habit. It is a habit that starts arguments, fights, terrorism, wars and the Holocaust. You are allowed to say L-O-V-E, but not this word.”
Heyman told of enduring racism, bullying and violence from teachers, authorities and neighbors, and what it was like to be marked and restricted in everything from where to live to when to shop and who to talk with. From day to day enforcement of Nazi rules and laws changed, often making it impossible for Jewish people to obtain food, live in their homes or survive.
“Six million Jews were murdered. Five million others were also murdered,” Heyman repeated several times.
He talked about a young girl who once asked her father, after touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, “’Why did not anybody do something about this?’ THAT,” he said, “is the lesson of the Holocaust.”
When he was nine Heyman watched his own school and synagogue burn to the ground.
“I was not allowed to go to school after that,” he explained.
He talked of walled areas known as ghettos, being restricted by curfews, encounters with the Gestapo, the arrest of his father for being Jewish, and what it was like to survive a bombing and be trapped underground with no way out. How he had to break through walls underground to find a way to the surface and how he was sure – that day, and many days during his childhood -- that he would not survive.
As the story of his childhood unfolded, so too did the historical time line of Nazi rule in Germany. From Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor of Germany to Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), and from the burning of Heyman’s school and synagogue to the opening of Dachau Concentration Camp, Heyman has come to understand how his own story fits into the political landscape of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
In recounting his childhood, and his survival, he asked students to pay attention to the political landscape around them at all times.
“I was a kid, so what did I know of politics?” he asked the students. “But I knew hunger and fear.”
Nine years after Heyman’s school burned to the ground, he was able to come to the United States of America. In America, at the age of 18, he returned to school. It was his mother who told him he would be completing his education. Heyman said he tried to explain to her that he was too old to go back.
“But,” he explained, “she said, ‘you’re going.’ So I went….. I had to learn English first – which is a challenge – but I went.”
Almost immediately he was drafted into the United States military. While on watch in North Korea, Heyman studied and earned his GED.
As Heyman recounted his experiences as a child growing up in Nazi Germany he expressed concern. He said that today he often hears rhetoric that reminds him of his childhood and he again asked students to steer clear of H-A-T-E.
“We gotta change the world,” Heyman told the students. “Be an Upstander, don’t be a bystander.”
The “Survivor Speak” program is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, NJ. The mission of the “Survivor Speak” program is to remember the Holocaust and to convey its history to others.
According to Heyman, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “When you meet a survivor of the Holocaust, you become a witness of the Holocaust.”
The MTHS sophomores who attended the “Survivor Speak” program are reading Night by Elie Wiesel.
“If any one of you can synch with anything I have said, that is good,” Heyman told the students. “I want to make the world better. You are the change.”
Fred Heyman asked the students to share his story with at least one other person before the end of the day.