Debra Maller’s fascination with the Holocaust began when she was a child growing up in Queens. Now, as a teacher, she is trying to plant the seeds of interest and understanding in a new generation.
On Dec. 5, Maller, who lives in Woodbridge, took a busload of 41 students from Rahway High School, where she teaches English, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. None of them is Jewish, as she is, but the students — most of them black or Hispanic — are members of the school’s Multi-Ethnic Culture Club, which works to help those in need and to foster understanding.
The students toured the museum for three hours. Maller said they were particularly moved by the cattle car on display, and the pile of shoes taken from camp inmates, “artifacts that truly spoke volumes in their silence.”
The students spoke of their surprise at learning about the resistance fighters who tried to combat the Nazis, and their horror at seeing pictures of the children who were subjected to medical experiments.
Most had seemed to her deeply moved, Maller said.
Maller’s own Holocaust awareness, she told NJ Jewish News, was triggered by an experience when she was 11, in the 1960s. On a visit to her brother in France, she saw a man who matched her movie-inspired image of a Nazi.
“He was staring at me, and I got very nervous. Then he started to cry,” she said. “He told us he was Jewish and that I reminded him of his sister who was killed during the Holocaust. It taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten: never to judge a person on their appearance.”
Teaching is Maller’s third career. For a number of years, she worked in banking and business, before deciding to go back to college and qualify as a teacher. She has been teaching English at Rahway since 1999. Along the way, she also deepened her knowledge of the Holocaust, and how to teach it.
She completed the Kean University certification course in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a number of subsequent seminars and courses, and now serves on the executive board of the university’s Diversity Council.
Last year, Maller created her school’s course on the Holocaust and genocides. Working with Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, she has brought survivors to meet the students, and has introduced them to books about the Holocaust.
On the bus with her and the students were two other teachers, several parents, and Michael Rubell, whose Morris Rubell Remembrance Journeys Fund sponsors excursions to the museum in honor of his late father, a Shoa survivor.
Rubell told NJJN the foundation used to sponsor eight or nine trips a year, but this year, there have been only around five. Plenty of groups want to go, but with the tight economy cutting into donations and each trip costing around $2,800, he said, “We’re doing far less than we’d like.”
Each group is accompanied by people with personal experience of the Holocaust. With the Rahway group were two survivors, Fred Heyman of Morris Plains, who was a hidden child, and Peter Fleischmann of Edison, who escaped from Czechoslovakia with his family.
Afterward, Fleischmann said some of the students asked him excellent questions. “If I can teach one kid not to stand by when they see someone being bullied, and not to initiate that kind of behavior, that’s what I’m after,” he said.
One of the parents on the trip spoke of how the Holocaust related to her own experience in Haiti under the regime of the dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier, when she saw victims of his brutal regime lying dead in the streets of Port Au Prince.
Maller was able to tell them about her own visits to concentration camps, with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in 2009, a trip that took her Israel, Germany, and Poland.
On the bus ride home from Washington, their driver told them about his experiences as a first responder on 9/11.
“We never know who we meet and what stories need to be told,” she said. “It is my hope that the students were inspired and have become witnesses themselves.”