A new center at Rowan University will bring new attention and focus to Holocaust studies.
Charles Middleberg recalled his favorite childhood memory was nothing: the fact that nothing happened. His life was quiet and peaceful.
Until the Germans came.
Middleberg and Helene Bouton, both Holocaust survivors, shared their stories of survival on Nov. 18 at Rowan University as the New Jersey school inaugurated its new Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies program.
The center is a collaboration between Rowan’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Education, along with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
About 200 people came to listen to Bouton and Middleberg, along with several other speakers, such as Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, and Larry Glasser, assistant executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and moderator of the discussion.
The center intends to educate people about the Holocaust, its significance and its relationship to broader issues of genocide.
Stephen Hague, history instructor and center coordinator, said Rowan has been working with the New Jersey Commission for about a year to create this center.
The center will be planning teacher workshops for students and regional teachers and many other programs, lectures and events. It is also potentially offering a study abroad program later on down the road.
“Students come to the subject with an intrinsic interest,” Hague said. “Many of the students today who have not had an opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor aren’t going to have that opportunity for much longer.”
With the number of survivors decreasing each year, it’s becoming an increasingly rare opportunity to hear their stories in person.
That’s why 19-year-old Tyler Jiang attended the discussion.
“As a history major, I’ve read a lot of literature about the Holocaust, but just hearing the stories from people brings a whole new perspective and really puts it in a new light,” he said.
The Rowan sophomore said he also enjoyed the idea of learning outside of the classroom.
“You get a chance to learn about something that is a past issue but is still very prevalent and also the opportunity to just listen to the stories of two Holocaust survivors,” he added.
For Bouton and Middleberg, sharing their stories is a part of that future.
Bouton is from Czechoslovakia and was one of a family of seven. Middleberg lived with his parents and brother in Paris. They lived simple lives; Bouton’s father was a bookbinder, Middleberg’s a watchmaker.
Both are survivors, but their stories differ greatly.
Bouton and her family were transported to a ghetto and eventually to Auschwitz. Her family members were sent to the gas chambers but she survived by being forced to work as a laborer.
She is the only survivor of her family, but “most of the families were like that,” she said during the event.
She was later sent to Bergen-Belsen two weeks before the camp was liberated.
In Auschwitz, she recalled, people knew of the gas chambers and crematoria, but they were was always hidden from sight and speech. But in Bergen-Belsen, she saw everything upfront — bodies piled high, the stench of death and disease — and saw what was waiting for her.
She couldn’t believe God created a place like that, she said.
“Bergen-Belsen was something that cannot be described,” she related. “If I remember it, I cannot sleep the next day because this was the most horrible place that you could ever imagine.”
Along with other survivors, Bouton was taken to Sweden for refuge and to recover from typhus. “It took us about two years to recuperate and become a little bit human,” she said.
She was eventually contacted by an old friend of her mother’s who lived in the United States who helped Bouton get a visa. Once here, she took Bouton in like a daughter and immediately enrolled her in school at James Monroe High School in the Bronx.
She met her husband, a Frenchman and another concentration camp survivor, while in school.
Middleberg was never sent to a camp, but he lived in fear every day of being taken into captivity.
His story started at age 9 in September 1939, when France declared war on Germany.
His father was sent a letter ordering him to fight in the German military or face dire consequences.
Nine thousand other Jewish Frenchmen received the same letter. Those men were taken by the Germans and shipped off to labor camps.
He remained in Paris with his mother and brother, hiding from the Germans.
The janitor of their apartment building lost his leg in World War I fighting the Germans. As a result of his hatred of Nazis, he helped the Middlebergs hide from them. He banged his peg leg loudly — a signal for the family to hide.
“This man, I owe him my life,” Middleberg said during the event.
With Paris taken over, his mother sent Middleberg and his brother away to the countryside through the help of another friend. They stayed on a small goat farm in Southwest France for several weeks until the woman brought him a letter.
When he opened it, a ring fell out. He instantly recognized it as his mother’s.
The letter said Middleberg’s mother was taken by the Germans during a raid.
“I’m a 12-year-old kid, got an 8-year-old brother, I’ve got a decision to make,” he said.
Middleberg decided to go back to Paris because if their mother ever did come back, she’d know where to find them.
Back in the city, there was never a moment of safety. He and his brother worked in a café and pretended to be Catholic, surrounded by German soldiers every day.
“We only thought about surviving,” he said. “Survival was our only goal because we were convinced that this horror is going to end one day, and Mom and Dad are going to come back, we’re going to be reunited again, and we are going to be a family and we’ll forgot all about all this wasted time. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be that way.”
Fortunately, the brothers were reunited with their father after the war. Of their large extended family, his father’s cousin was the only other survivor.
After five years of waiting for a visa, they moved to the U.S. in 1945.
Middleberg’s daughters are now second-generation storytellers and will continue to share his story when he no longer can.
“The truth is, I have a very happy ending to my story because I married this wonderful woman, she was also a survivor… and I have four children, two sons, two daughters, 12 grandchildren,” he said. “I’ve been dedicating my whole life until the day I won’t be able to stand up anymore to tell my story. I just don’t want it to be forgotten.”
Bouton said she has told her story to probably every high school in New Jersey and will continue to tell them the “real truth” as opposed to false information or propaganda.
“It’s always very difficult, but I feel that for my parents’ sake, for my sisters’ and brothers’ sake who never made it — and I speak for 6 million people who never made it — that’s why I speak.”