2018-02-28 / Voice at the Shore

Novin, now on NJ Holocaust commission, seeks 2nd & 3rd gen speakers

Voice shore editor

“It’s up to us to keep the memory alive.”

So says second-generation Holocaust survivor Gert Novin, an Atlantic County resident who was recently appointed to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, a state government committee that supports and oversees Holocaust education in schools. Her statement could well become the mantra for subsequent generations of Holocaust survivors.

During her first meeting with the commission last December, Novin was asked to help find second- and third-generation survivors willing to be trained to speak in schools about their parents’ experiences.

She is now looking for willing candidates. “What we need are people to tell the stories. Not everyone is comfortable with that. I am networking out there now to train more speakers. It’s a wonderful feeling to let people know that their parents’ stories aren’t going to be forgotten.”

Involving second- and third-generation survivors is essential to the future of Holocaust education, she stressed. “With survivors’ numbers dwindling, it’s up to the next generations to make sure the lessons of the Holocaust are remembered.”

The commission comprises a group of approximately 25 rabbis, educators, and survivors of various generations who meet quarterly to review and promote genocide awareness and prevention programs in schools, according to Novin.

Currently, only eight states mandate Holocaust education, with only New Jersey, Illinois and Florida requiring it for elementary school students, said Novin. But things may be changing. Last year, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York announced it had gotten commitments from legislators in 20 states to submit bills mandating genocide education in schools.

Even the youngest children need to be involved in education that discourages the attitudes that lead to genocide, which are intolerance and hatred, stressed Novin.

“The Holocaust started with bullying and taking away people’s dignity,” she noted. “We need to start teaching young children, even in first grade, to respect differences.”

“We want ‘Never Again’ to mean never again, not just for Jews but for everybody,” she stressed. “The Holocaust wasn’t the first genocide to happen during the 20th century, nor was it the last. Unless we teach children the importance of tolerance and being kind to each other from an early age, it will happen again and again and again.”

Novin, who is also a member of the Executive Committee of Stockton University’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, holds a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Westchester University. She has been involved in Holocaust education and memorialization since shortly after her mother died in 1995.

“Her voice cracks as she tells how the grandmother she never met insisted that Novin’s then- 19-year-old mother leave behind the half-sister that Novin never met—who was then a two-year-old child—while hiding out in the woods. The little girl and grandmother were among the many Jews from the Vilna Ghetto who were lined up and shot in pits at Ponary, a town close to Vilna.”

Novin’s mother escaped the Vilna ghetto the day before the Nazis arrived there. “She hid in the woods, barns and doghouses until she made her way across the border into Russia,” recounts Novin.

Novin’s father, who grew up in Warsaw, also succeeded in evading the Nazis by fleeing to Russia, but was picked up by Russian authorities after crossing the border. He was then sent to a Siberian labor camp, where he remained throughout the war.

Both parents “lost 95% of their family in the Holocaust,” said Novin, who recalled how growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust with so little extended family affected her and her two older brothers (one of whom was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war).

“As my mom said, ‘I had no one to be happy for me,’” she said. “She lost her family and I never had grandparents. It was a different type of childhood. My parents weren’t trusting of strangers. My brothers and I had a very close relationship with my parents, in a protective way, because we knew the pain they’d gone through.”

This experience was common of many children of Holocaust survivors, noted Novin, who helped start a group for children of survivors in the Philadelphia area.

Novin’s mother only shared stories with her about what happened during the Holocaust after Novin had just had her first child. “Before that, if I asked, my mother would begin to cry.” Her father never spoke to her of his experience, she added; she learned the details of his story from a cousin.

Despite growing up surrounded by shadows of the Holocaust, Novin said that she began to realize how little she knew about the Holocaust shortly after her parents passed away. “I felt an emptiness. I didn’t know enough about what happened to all my family during the Holocaust.”

Those feelings led Novin to get involved with Holocaust survivor groups in the Philadelphia area where she was then living, and ultimately to go back to graduate school for a master’s degree in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

“The year and a half I spent in that program was one of the best presents I ever gave to myself, and it changed the direction of my life. It brought me into the Holocaust, as something that was a priority to me, rather than something I hid from as a child,” said Novin.

Novin’s involvement also led her back to Vilna and to the now-grass-covered pits of Ponary, where her grandmother and half-sister are buried among the 70,000 Jews and thousands of Poles and Russians murdered there. She visited this site in 2014 while helping to facilitate a study tour of Eastern Europe offered by Stockton’s Holocaust Resource Center, led by noted Holocaust scholar Michael Birnbaum.

“Standing there by those pits and hearing Michael Birnbaum describe just exactly what went on, along with 25 Stockton students and one survivor, was the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had,” said Novin.

This experience and others like it have strengthened Novin’s resolve to prevent future genocides by educating today’s youth—including young children— so that they do not repeat the mistakes of past generations.

To learn more, contact Gert Novin at GFKN3790@AOL.com. 

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