Princeton School District holds Holocaust awareness assembly in response to recent incidents

Two months ago, PHS became the center of international news coverage with an incident of insensitivity towards victims of the Holocaust coming into the spotlight. In response, Rabbi Adam Feldman of the Jewish Center of Princeton organized a Holocaust assembly in conjunction with the PPS administration for students at PHS and John Witherspoon Middle School. On Wednesday, May 4, Cochrane introduced Rabbi Adam Feldman and Holocaust survivor Dr. Vera Goodkin.

Born Vera Herman in Czechoslovakia on June 1930, Goodkin grew up in the shadow of the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler’s fascist, anti-Semitic National Socialist Party.

After the invasion of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Goodkin’s family was put under unbearable pressure by the Nuremberg Laws. “All of a sudden, maybe two weeks after the Ides of March, when we were occupied, I walked into my classroom, and one of my classmates called me a dirty Jew. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she said, ‘And she’s Hungarian, too,’ because there was no love lost between the Slavs and the Hungarians,” said Goodkin in an interview with the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

As deportations to concentration camps began, the Herman family managed to cross the entirety of Bohemia and Moravia without detection, but is betrayed at the Hungarian-Slovakian border. The family was once again detained but managed to escape into the night to Hungary and make their way to the safe haven of Budapest.

“Somebody convinced Adolf Eichmann that his headquarters would be safe from bombing if he left the Jews in Budapest, judiciously scattered throughout the city. He did that, but after two months, he realized they were giving him invalid information, and he started finishing his assignment of the final solution,” Dr. Goodkin said.

As its safe haven evaporated, the family was separated at Kistarcsa, a concentration camp, where Goodkin herself was rescued by agents of the Swedish Special Envoy Raoul Wallenberg. Later reunited with her parents in Budapest by Wallenberg, Goodkin was liberated in February 1945 by Soviet forces.

Before and after hearing Goodkin’s story, many questions have been raised as to the quality of Holocaust education in New Jersey, the ubiquity of privilege in the Princeton community, and insensitivity towards a systematic genocide that consumed the lives of 11 million people ranging from Jews to Romanis, and LGBTQIA+ to Marxists.

“I think the last time I’ve had any education on the Holocaust was actually when I was in Scotland, and that was not very much,” Vivan Loomis ’19 said. “I think every school in the country should have a Holocaust survivor, or someone who is affiliated with the Holocaust, come and visit and talk about it because this is an important thing to know about. It was very important part of our history.”

Some students have received education outside of the traditional public school. “In regular school, there’s not a whole lot about the Holocaust, but I’m Jewish so I went to Hebrew school where basically every single class was about the Holocaust,” Evan Hamblet ’19 said. “As for normal schools, they don’t really do a whole lot about it.”

However, Hamblet does not believe the ‘Jews vs. Nazis’ drinking game incident at PHS justifies more Holocaust education. “I think we mainly need to make sure that people aren’t idiots, don’t drink, and don’t play beer pong,” Hamblet said.

PHS students received varying degrees of Holocaust education, largely depending on their middle school. “I went to Cranbury School where they had a very strong commitment to Holocaust education,” Ameya Hadap ’17 said. “The school brought in survivors, had us watch [documentaries], and had multiple units on it every year … we always had a very comprehensive exposure to the Holocaust, and I think I’m better for it,” Hadap said.

Even so, Miloš Šeškar ’18, who attended John Witherspoon Middle School, had a different experience. “It wasn’t very much taught in the curriculum, but it was kind of something that teachers felt personally they had to throw in,” Šeškar said. “I think we should have more of a set curriculum that requires teachers and also students to understand the Holocaust.”

In the end, the assembly moved many students and community members to a deeper understanding of the horrific events that defined the Holocaust. “It was deeply moving,” Hadap said. “It was a real-life experience of someone who went through a period of horror I could never dream of.”

“What Vera said at the end that love is more powerful than hate, I think that’s one of the great messages here,” said Rabbi Adam Feldman of the Jewish Center. “Love can conquer anything.”

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