For Montclair teens, a lesson not from a Holocaust ‘victim’ — but a survivor
By ERIN ROLL
Otto Salamon spent his childhood years trying to outrun death.
As a young Jewish boy in Hungary and the Sudetenland at the outset of World War II, Salamon and his family, along with all other Jewish families in the region, were in danger from the Nazis. The next five years and more found the family moving from place to place in Hungary, Belgium and Czechoslovakia, trying to evade capture and being shipped off to camps and near-certain death, and trying to cope with shortages of food and other tribulations.
Salamon shared his stories with a group of Montclair High School students in January and February, as part of the Adopt a Survivor program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ.
Salamon recounted his family’s ordeal in the book “Dodging Death: A Family On the Run.”
“What I try to convey to the students is that arriving in the United States got me to learn the American way of life,” Salamon told Montclair Local. “And that is why living in the U.S. taught me to live as a Holocaust survivor, not a Holocaust victim. In other words I don’t want the students to feel sorry for me.”
Salamon was born in the Sudetenland (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), and moved to Hungary with his family when he was a small child.
Salamon himself was initially taken to a camp with other children as a small boy, but his family was able to plead for and obtain his release. Later in the war his father was captured and taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but the elder Salamon also survived.
Among the memories that hit home with the students: Salamon recounted how the hunger was so bad that he found himself chewing on shoe leather, or putting sugar on snow and eating it.
The family often received help from others. In one case, a priest provided Salamon with a forged baptismal certificate to escape imprisonment. In another, families provided the Salamons with food and a safe route by which to leave town.
Salamon and his family survived and moved to the United States after the war’s end. Salamon grew up and became a film and television agent, as well as a writer, producer and lecturer at the New School, and he now lives in Sparta with his family.
Shana Stein, a social studies teacher at Montclair High School, organized the project.
Stein teaches the Holocaust, Genocide, and Modern Humanity course at MHS. This is the first year that MHS has taken part in the Adopt a Survivor program, Stein said. Through the program, school classes are introduced to a survivor and ask that person about their life in meetings over a series of class periods. Students are encouraged to ask the survivor about what they and their families went through, what day-to-day life was like, and what happened with their lives after liberation and the end of World War II.
The program in its current format has been ongoing since the fall of 2019, said Jamie Carus, the program’s director. Since that time, there have been 12 pairings between survivors and classes, reaching approximately 300 students and involving 15 teachers, she said.
With the youngest Holocaust survivors now in their 80s and 90s, Stein said the current generation of high school students may well be the last one that can say that they have met survivors.
Ilyse Shainbrown, who is Metrowest’s director of Holocaust education, said that with fewer survivors living to tell their stories, and with that number dwindling, it is important to make sure survivors are able to tell their stories and have them preserved.
“As time goes on, we know that survivors will not be with us much longer, so having their stories continuously being told by a new generation is so imperative to the [continuity] of Holocaust education,” Shainbrown said.
Seniors taking the class can receive college credit through a partnership with Kean University.
Dylan Gutterman, a senior, said she and her classmates listened to Salamon’s stories and knew that they, as students, had a responsibility to ensure those stories wouldn’t be forgotten. “Especially as we have seen rising rates of anti-Semitic hate crimes and shocking numbers of Holocaust deniers, I think my classmates and I felt that we had a responsibility to do something about it,” Gutterman said. “I think every story is incredibly important to preserve, because as we move further away from Holocaust in time, it becomes the younger generation's responsibility to ensure that no one forgets the truth.”
An earlier version of this post misidentified the subject Shana Stein teaches, and referred to Dylan Gutterman by an incorrect pronoun.