2018-07-18 / Local News

Survivor wants students to learn Holocaust’s lessons


AGE: 79

FAMILY: Wife Mona (z”l), daughter Robin Sue

HOMETOWN: Willingboro

SYNAGOGUE: Temple Har Zion

FAVORITE GERMAN FOODS: Stuffed cabbage and potato salad


FAVORITE MOVIE GENRE: Westerns from the ’50s and ’60s

Holocaust survivor Joel Fabian begins his presentations to students by introducing himself in German.

The guttural sound of the foreign tongue always gets his audience’s attention right away—but what keeps them captivated is the story he weaves about his family’s unlikely survival “hiding out in plain sight” within the larger picture of Hitler’s brutal reign. He takes pains that his audience will understand that Jews were not the only targets for annihilation during the dark war years.

“I talk about not only our experiences; I also talk about the five million non-Jews killed, including blacks, gypsies, homosexuals and mentally disabled,” said Fabian, 79, a Temple Har Zion congregant who designed and financed the Mount Holly synagogue’s Holocaust memorial, which is dedicated to survivors and all 11 million victims.

Doing so, he said, helps today’s students grasp the universal lessons he wants them to take away from his presentations.

“We Holocaust survivors were given a mandate by those who didn’t survive,” he said. “They told us that if you talk about us, people will know we were alive.”

Fabian was only four when his family, including his parents and two younger sisters— one just an infant—were forced from their Berlin home to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. The camp, located in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, was meant to be a temporary holding area. Most of the hundreds of thousands of captives who landed there would then be transported to extermination camps.

Within months of their arrival, it was his family’s turn to leave. Their names had been placed on a list for transport to Auschwitz. Although Fabian is not 100 percent clear how they managed to evade death, luck was involved. On the day they were supposed to get on a train to the death camp, his father was not there; he had been taken to Berlin with a forced work detail. Somehow an esteemed German rabbi convinced their Nazi wardens to wait until his father had returned to transport the family. Also, the Fabian children were hidden in laundry bags while the drama played out, he said.

After that train left Theresienstadt, their names never again appeared on a list for deportation. The family did not dare call notice to the fact that they were overlooked.

“Most Holocaust survivors will tell you the same thing: We happened to be at the right place at right time,” he said.

Fabian doesn’t have too many clear memories of his years spent hiding in plain sight at the camp. “I look at the camp experience from a child’s point of view rather than an adult’s,” he said. “We as kids had a bunch of things in common: We were always cold or hot; we were always hungry; and we didn’t get too friendly with other children, because they usually weren’t going to be around the camp for very long.”

He was seven when Theresienstadt was liberated and the family returned to Berlin. Back home, his father led the Jewish community, helping to establish the first post-war synagogue and starting the first Jewish newspaper, called “Der Weg” (The Way.)

Fabian wasn’t around to observe much of the rebuilding process. He was sent away to a sanitarium in Switzerland for two years to recover from tuberculosis. By the time he returned, Berlin was in a tense mood as the Cold War heated up. His parents jumped on a chance to immigrate to the United States, settling in the Bronx in 1949. His father, a lawyer, helped Jews and other Holocaust victims with restitution issues, while his mother worked as a secretary. The kids restarted their lives enrolled in New York City public schools.

After graduation, Fabian enlisted in the U.S. Army. Upon retiring from the service as a sergeant in the medical corps, he moved to Willingboro and worked on the civilian side, supporting the Army in Fort Dix and eventually the Navy at the shipping yard. It was while working at Fort Dix that one of the major TV networks ran one of the first major series about the Holocaust. After that, he was asked by one of the officers to talk about his experiences.

Admittedly, his first few talks were not very polished. He then started doing more research, which he always brings along to his presentations, along with the yellow star he was forced to wear outside the home. In addition, he regularly chaperones teachers on annual trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum sponsored by the JCRC’s Raab/Goodwin Holocaust Museum & Education Center— knowing that the trip is too hard for many of the older survivors to make.

“While we are visiting the museum, Joel will often stand by his family’s picture, which hangs in the museum, and share some of his experiences with other visitors to the museum, giving them the rare opportunity to hear eyewitness testimony,” Helen Kirshbaum, the museum’s director said. “Joel, like so many of the survivors in our community, is a shining example of how one person can make a difference. 

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