Sixteen teenagers sat on the floor in the wooden shack that serves as the Performing Arts Center at JCC Camp Deeny Riback in Flanders. On this sunny Friday, July 20, their rapt attention was directed not at performers, but at Mark Schonwetter and Hanna Keselman, two Holocaust survivors.
Schonwetter and Keselman came to Deeny Riback to share their stories of how they stayed alive when they were younger than the campers seated before them, when the Nazis destroyed their childhoods. Isabella Fiske (Schonwetter’s daughter) moderated the discussion.
It was the first time this program, known as Survivors Speak, traveled to a summer camp. Survivors Speak was developed by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest around 2001 with the purpose of sharing first-hand the diverse experiences of individuals who lived through the Holocaust.
“I thought summer camp was just another way to bring this compelling subject to young people,” said Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council.
Holocaust survivors will be speaking at two other camps this summer: Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake in Verbank, N.Y., and the Reconstructionist Camp Havaya, in South Sterling, Pa., both residential camps. Deeny Riback is the only day camp. All the camps are affiliated with One Happy Camper of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“The Holocaust is fascinating to me,” said Zoe Statmore of Livingston, a teenage camper who had heard other Holocaust survivors, including Schonwetter, speak before. “I want to pass on their stories.”
That’s exactly the goal of the program. As it began, Fiske asked the students to close their eyes and think of someone close to them, and then to promise themselves they will share the testimony they were about to hear with that person.
Deeny Riback director Dana Gottfried timed the survivors’ visit to coincide (roughly) with Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av, which occurred two days later. The Hebrew date marks the destruction of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other calamities. It also serves as a time of reflection.
“At camp, we’re always trying to do something educational around Tisha b’Av,” Gottfried said. “This program is a good tie-in for the saddest day of the year.” The survivors addressed the oldest campers, rising ninth and 10th graders, who serve as “leaders in training,” or LITs, because Gottfried felt they would benefit from hearing their accounts.
“It’s always a saddening and shocking experience” to hear from survivors, Zoe said. “I can’t believe it happened.”
Schonwetter, who speaks often and tailors his talks not only to the age of the audience, but also to their backgrounds, described how time and again, his mother’s quick thinking and bravery, as well as her friendship with Piwat, one of their farm employees, saved them.
His father, who was the head of the Jewish community in their Polish town, was taken to the police station soon after the Nazis entered and Schonwetter never saw him again.
Piwat helped Schonwetter, his mother, and sister flee before they could be arrested, and they went to live in a ghetto. Schonwetter told the campers about feeling sick, getting lice, and living on “a cup of soup that was mostly warm water and a piece of bread” for breakfast and dinner.
When Piwat learned the ghetto was to be liquidated, he came back to help the family escape again. He brought them to a house near a forest where he’d gotten the residents to promise to hide them in an attic during the winter, and in the summer the family lived in the forest. They followed that rhythm for three years.
During their second summer, they came across a large group of about 20 Jews also living in the woods. The family was invited to join the group but Schonwetter’s mother declined, fearing that the size of the group would lead to discovery — which is what happened.
“A couple of days later we heard shots,” he said. “And then machine guns.” His mother told them not to run forward, where they would have been caught, but backward, toward the gunshot, so that as the Germans moved forward, the Schonwetters would remain behind them. The Germans ploughed through, and the entire large group of Jews was murdered.
The family was eventually liberated by the Russian army, but not before living among non-Jewish refugees and masquerading as
“By the time I was your age, I was a grown-up person already because of what I went through,” Schonwetter told the campers.
Keselman, who has a shy demeanor but also speaks frequently to groups, spent most of the war separated from her parents. She remembers being sent away on a train when she was 8. “I boarded with children, most of whom were crying,” she said. “I remember being dry eyed and really hurting.”
She spent years in Switzerland with different families before she was returned to France to a home run by the Children’s Aid Society. Eventually, her parents sent for her from Nice, where Keselman said “many Jews thought they would be safe.”
The reunion with her parents was “very difficult,” she said. “We were really strangers.” Now 12, she hadn’t seen her father in four years, and had seen her mother only briefly a year earlier. Her father “was half his size,” she said. “He’d been starving in a camp.” Her mother had been arrested, tortured, beaten, and somehow freed, but was “in really bad shape.”
The idea that they would be safe in Nice was illusory. They were arrested with other Jews and sent to the French Alps where they were placed in forced residence. When Italy declared an armistice in 1943, Keselman and her mother went to Italy, where they spent the duration of the war hidden in a convent in Rome by Father Maria Benedetto, later named a righteous gentile by Yad Vashem.
Keselman’s father did not survive. He was taken back to Nice, and she never saw him again; he died in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp two weeks before it was liberated.
Nathalie Neuhaus, 14, of Springfield, whose grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, appreciated hearing from people who weren’t specifically held in concentration camps. “It’s always nice to hear different views on what happened,” she told NJJN.
When Schonwetter and Keselman finished telling their stories, a student asked what to do when confronted with someone who says the Holocaust never happened. Keselman responded that she once showed a friend an article, with photos (in NJJN), about her experience in the Holocaust.
Keselman recalled the friend said, “Oh, you mean it really happened?”
“I was so shocked,” said Keselman. “All I could come up with was, ‘Yes, it really happened and I was there.’”