SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ — Dr. Susan Lederman, a Holocaust survivor and former President of Temple Sinai in Summit, spoke at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains on April 23, as part of the temple's Yom HaShoah Holocaust remembrance evening. The annual event, underwritten by the Nathanson Adult Education Fund, is a tribute to those who perished, those who survived against all odds, and those who risked their lives to save others.
Lederman's story is about more than only survival as a child. As an adult, it is also a story about action and what Jews call "Tikkun olam" (repairing the world, making the world a better place). Lederman believes strongly in our obligation to strengthen democracy. She is Professor Emerita of Public Administration at Kean University and has served as President of the League of Women Voters, and Director of the Common Cause National Governing Association, among many other public service positions.
Lederman's family was from Slovakia. Lederman recalls a struggle for Jews as they faced increased limitations and rules, including threats of deportations, that made it increasingly difficult for Jews to live comfortably, freely and openly. This intensified to the conditions that made it necessary for her and her parents to hide separately from each other.
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Lederman as a child was hiding at the age of seven, with a non-related family in Hungary. She went by an assumed name, and had to pretend that she didn't understand German.
"My parents managed to visit a couple of times and I knew to pretend not to recognize them if they came [when they were in sight of anyone else]," said Lederman, who was liberated along with her parents in 1945 and came to the U.S. in 1948. "My childhood experiences have informed my course of life."
"I believe that we, in the United States, have an obligation to demonstrate that democracy can and does work," she remarked. "I believe that we all must be vigilant in protecting our democratic way of life. That to me means civic participation and responsibility to enhance and strengthen civil society," said Lederman, who envisions the U.S. as continuing to be welcoming toward what Emma Lazarus called, "the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free."
The evening also included a special Yom HaShoah liturgy, compiled by Cantor Darcie Sharlein. It incorporated voices of children from the Holocaust, including music written by 11-year-old Alec Volkoviski for a music competition in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943, and excerpts from Anne Frank's diary. In addition, the liturgy included contemporary readings, one of which stated: "We are almost afraid to make ourselves remember. But we are even more afraid to forget. We ask for wisdom, that we might mourn, and not be consumed by hatred.". Another reading articulated:: "Where there is hatred, may we bring love. Where there is pain: healing. Where there is despair: hope. Where there is discord: peace. Make this a better world, and begin with us."
"My belief is patterned on the words of the Hebrew sage, Hillel, who said: 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?'" she said.
"This message, to me means an obligation to be the best that I can be, to be true to myself," she said. "But one cannot stop with just one's own self-actualization. One must act on behalf of others. One cannot put off good deeds for when one has more time, or when it is more convenient. One has to act when there is a need."