Of the 125 students at Bernards High School who listened to Irene Zisblatt tell her story, only a few were Jewish. Conor Cassidy, 16, said that he, like many of his classmates at the Bernardsville school, had only heard about the Holocaust in history classes.
“It was very different hearing about it in person,” he said, interviewed a few days after Zisblatt’s visit to the school. “For her to be able to talk about what happened to her was pretty brutal. I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t crying.
“I’ll always remember that I heard from someone who actually was a Holocaust survivor.”
Zisblatt, who lives in Florida, spoke at the school on Nov. 12 and at other schools in the area later in the week. Her visit was organized by Congregation B’nai Israel, the Conservative congregation in Basking Ridge.
Her talks were of the synagogue’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — the Nov. 9-10, 1938, pogrom against the Jews of Austria and Germany that is generally regarded as the start of the Holocaust.
Zisblatt spoke to the religious-school students there on Wednesday night, to United Synagogue Youth members on Thursday, and to congregants after the Shabbat service Friday evening, Nov. 14.
Hailey Lapa, 15, whose mother, Shari, is CBI president, was part of the USY group who heard the talk. She had heard other survivors tell their stories, but she was particularly moved by how openly Zisblatt showed her emotions. “Everyone was just amazed that she could stand up there and describe what she went through,” Hailey said. “It gave me the chills to hear her, and to hear her say that after all that, she didn’t give up her faith in God.”
Zisblatt told each audience member how, as a young teenager in Hungary, she was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Her entire family was killed, but she survived because Dr. Josef Mengele chose her as one of the subjects of his torturous experiments.
These days, Zisblatt wears around her neck a very precious memento — a pendant with five diamonds. Her mother sewed the stones into the hem of her dress before they were separated. She managed to keep them through all that time in the camp by swallowing them before being searched, excreting them, cleaning them, and then swallowing them again.
For decades after the war, Zisblatt didn’t speak about her ordeal. She didn’t tell her own children that she was a survivor until her son came home from school one day with instructions to do a project on the Holocaust. She went on to write a book, The Fifth Diamond, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and to be interviewed for The Last Days, a documentary produced by the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. She took on the mission, she said, of trying to raise awareness of the evil that can come from prejudice and intolerance.
Bernards High vice principal Patrick Lott said that when he was approached by Alicia Zurlo, a member of CBI, he jumped at the chance to have a survivor speak at the school. “How much longer will we be able to hear about this firsthand?” he said.
It wasn’t his first personal encounter with those who had been victims of Nazi brutality. Teaching at another school, he heard two other survivors speak, also profoundly moving experiences, he told NJJN. And in the 1990s, he took a group of 40 students to the Dachau concentration camp during a visit to Europe. He spoke of the overwhelming sense of tragic silence and grief there, even five decades after the war.
For Zisblatt’s visit to the school, he gathered all the students with social studies in the last period of the day, so the audience ranged from freshmen to seniors. “I suppose ‘miraculous’ would be the word, though that seems strange in this context,” Lott said afterward. “These are high schoolers — and there was total silence, apart from maybe a sniffle. For 55 minutes, no one moved.”
For him, Zisblatt’s last words were the most moving. “For her to say, ‘I have no room in my heart for hate,’ a woman who survived such evil — that’s just incredible. You realize that this is something you just can’t turn your head away from.”