GALLOWAY — When Stockton University professor Michael Hayse and some students began work on a project to catalog South Jersey Holocaust survivors in 2019, they thought it would take about a year and yield a few hundred names.
But three years later, the project moves on, and now hundreds of students involved have found the names of 1,500 Holocaust survivors who live or lived in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
The digital archive of documents, copies of memoirs, and ancestry information resides at The Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University.
The center opened in 1990, has expanded three times, and is currently expanding again, said Gail Hirsch Rosenthal, director of The Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.
She said the focus of the center is education about the Holocaust and other genocides.
“We here in Stockton have found that we have many Holocaust survivors who have lived within 40 miles of the school. That means Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland Counties, which is unique,” Rosenthal said.
Two and a half years ago, they decided to plan for the future, she said. At the same time, resources were made available to Stockton University for the first time.
One of them was the Arolsen Archives, which were documentation available from Germany. Rosenthal said these archives were made available to Stockton through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The archive contains around 30 million documents from concentration camps, forced labor data and files from displaced persons.
“Some of our Holocaust survivors include someone who was born in Czechoslovakia and whose parents have been told they can send a child to England on a train called The Kindertransport. You can only send one. That child left and she never knew what happened to her sister and her mother,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal recently said researchers at Stockton were able to tell the survivor (who has since died) what happened to her mother and sister. They were murdered, she said.
“But she found out that her sister and her mother were together all the time, which was a comfort to knowing that they were together,” Rosenthal said.
Between 1938 and 1940, the Kindertransport consisted of trains that left Germany and Austria in the nine months before the outbreak of World War II to save as many people as possible from the Nazis. Again the parents were instructed that they could only send one child.
“We found some Kindertransport kids living here near Stockton University who didn’t even know they were Jewish and on the Kindertransport. But we helped them find their archive information,” she said.
With the archives Stockton has, Rosenthal said they can document and find information for families they never had before. Thanks to its partnership with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, Stockton also has access to 54,000 testimonies from Holocaust survivors and others who survived the genocide.
Stockton also has over 60 memoirs by Holocaust survivors from Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May.
Rosenthal also said there is a project under Professor Wendall White, a Guggenheim Award-winning photographer who teaches photography at Stockton, where he and students went out for over 10 years, photographing survivors and capturing some of their stories.
With all of this, Rosenthal said Stockton was able to do projects for students interested in Holocaust studies and study the families.
At Sara and Sam Schoffer’s Holocaust Resource Center, Rosenthal said they want students to learn research methods and share their research.
For example, when she talked about the Kindertransport survivor, Stockton had her memoir. Some Holocaust survivors never gave oral history testimonies, but this survivor did, she said.
They found that there were themes in the stories of these Holocaust survivors.
“There were themes like friendship, the themes of helping each other, the themes it was no coincidence that they came here to South Jersey because it’s the idea of one person telling the other that they have a history together, so let’s live together,” Rosenthal said.
She said they never knew it was common for families of Holocaust survivors to live together when they came to South Jersey.
Also, Stockton researchers found the existence of the Baron De Hirsch Fund, established in the 19th century. It bought farmland around the world for new immigrants. Some of this farmland was in South Jersey.
There was also the Jewish Agricultural Society, unique in South Jersey, which had interest-free loans for survivors.
“We found another trend that we had Holocaust survivors who came here for retirement towards the end of their careers and lived in the South Jersey area. We also noticed the trend that many of our survivors started businesses in South Jersey that are still operating today,” Rosenthal said.
One of these businesses is the Montreal Inn in Cape May, which was first operated by Holocaust survivors.
The digital archive can be found at www.stockton.edu. For more information, call 609-652-4699.
Rosenthal said this project is not stopping. As many families become enthusiastic about the project, the resource center will continue to expand the archive.
“Now people we know are coming forward and we had no idea they were Holocaust survivors,” she said.
In fall 2023, the center plans to release a digital exhibit that will take a broader look at the Holocaust, refugee issues, and the positive impact of survivors on South Jersey.
Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at [email protected]
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