Holocaust survivors pass on stories to the next generation

On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, students and Holocaust survivors are being paired as part of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims [ICHEIC] Service Corps program at UM.

The program, now in its fourth month, aims to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass on the survivors’ stories of courage, loss and struggle to a new generation. Students and survivors engage in a once-a-week meeting as part of a six-credit, year-long Justice Studies course.

“The first component is course credit, the second, one-hour weekly visits [to the survivor’s homes in Miami Beach], and third, an academic enrichment component that gives the student background on the Holocaust and helps bridge the knowledge between the survivor’s memories and the students,” said Dr. Eugene Rothman, senior research fellow and coordinator of the program.

“It’s a brief encounter with history-it makes us more a part of humanity,” Abigail Sarminto, sophomore, said. “Overall I think that this brings a sense of relief to the survivors by letting them know the perspective of a younger generation, that we understand and appreciate everything they’ve gone through.”

The University of Miami program is a pilot-it’s the first time something like this has been done between college students and local survivors. If all goes well, this may turn into a national project that will take place at other high centers of learning around the country where there are high concentrations of survivors.

“We have seen more evil, more suffering, more brutality and much, much more loneliness and yet we were forgotten in the years after the Holocaust,” said Roman Kent, Holocaust survivor and president of the American gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “It’s important for the survivor and for the students because this project [promotes] compassion towards survivors, and at the same time gives students education about the Holocaust.”

In the few short months survivors and students have had their meetings, the bond between them has become unforgettable, so much so that students are undergoing “trauma training” with advice on how to cope with sudden illness or death of their new friend.

“We thought that the program would go well but we didn’t realize the nature and extent of the relationships; they have gotten so close that we’ve started giving special training-how to cope with possible serious illness or death because of the tremendous attachment,” Dr. Rothman said.

“I was a little nervous about what I could give to the person-my survivor is married with children, and the age difference is huge. But after about three hours I learned that I was wrong,” Cassandra Bullens, senior, said. “They really just need someone to listen to them; they need a friend. As Jewish students today we’re so far removed from the Holocaust-it’s the least we can do; it needs to be done”.

“I have much respect for the students because they are not bystanders,” Kent said. “They are trying to be involved and they are getting involved. It’s the only way we can prevent the Holocaust from being part of our lives in the future.”

Teressa Dalpe can be contacted at t.dalpe@umiami.edu.