Jewish Family & Children’s Service Gala To Honor Mercer County Holocaust Survivors
“Honor the Past. Illuminate the Future.”
These words are the underlying theme of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County’s annual fundraising gala, this year known as the “Illumination Ball.”
For almost 80 years, JFCS of Greater Mercer County has been a mainstay in supporting individuals and families by empowering people to care for themselves and others.
For those of any faith or affiliation who are suffering or in need, this non-profit organization offers support, hope, and comfort. In a recent year, its professional staff and scores of volunteers assisted more than 3000 individuals, including families, seniors and their adult children, and couples who needed help.
Services and programs include information, referral, therapy, support, education, and advocacy.
Displaced Person’s Camp
In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the concentration camp operated by the Germans in Poland during World War II, the JFCS gala will honor Holocaust survivors, and in particular, those in Mercer County.
This is of special importance to Barbara Majeski, chairperson of the gala and also a member of the JFCS Board of Directors. Her grandparents, now deceased, were survivors of the Holocaust, and her father was born on a cattle train in which his mother was traveling to a displaced person’s camp in Germany.
“I feel it is so important to honor the victims and survivors and to share my family’s story,” explains Ms. Majeski. “My grandfather, Max Schwartz, born in Poland, was the eldest of seven. His parents and siblings died in Auschwitz and other camps. Max was the only survivor in his family.
“My grandmother, Roza Schwartz, also born in Poland, was the third of six children. She was the only survivor in her family. The details are unknown, but the family members are presumed to have died in the ghetto and camps.”
Ms. Majeski’s father, Harri Schwartz, continues the narrative. “During the war, when my mother was about 13, she came home from school one afternoon, and no one was home. Everyone was gone, and she never saw any of her family again. She was told she should leave Poland immediately, and somehow, with others, she made her way to Russia, where she was put to work in a slave labor camp.”
While in Russia, she met Max Schwartz, who, after being imprisoned, had been forced into the Russian Army. As Harri explains, “Max was fleeing the Nazis, running eastward from Poland, as the Germans invaded. He was arrested at the border of Russia, and was sentenced to 13 years ‘as a bar mitzvah!’ (Max always saw the irony in this punishment). When the Nazis began fighting the Russians, Max went from being a prisoner to being a soldier in the Russian army.”
Eventually, Max and Roza were married. Harri Schwartz relates that after the war ended, his father “was working in a rice factory, and secretly helping to smuggle Jews out of Russia, to get them to occupied Germany. However, my mother was pregnant, and they were not taking pregnant women.
“But finally, it was decided that if my father stayed behind and continued to smuggle people out, she could leave. I was born on a cattle train somewhere between Germany and Poland in 1946. Then, they told my mother that if the baby cried, both she and the baby would be shot.”
Somehow, they made it safely to a displaced person’s camp in Germany, then occupied by the Americans, British, and Russians. “My mother left notes on bulletin boards all over the area, explaining where she was,” continues Mr. Schwartz, “When my father was able to get to Germany, he found the notes, and they were reunited.”
The family lived in the camp, and Max worked as a baker until 1951, when they were able to leave for the U.S., settling in New Jersey. Eventually, two more boys, Robert and Jeffrey, were born, and the family was close-knit and comfortable.
“Max and Roza were devoted to their three sons, and they were dedicated to raising them within Judaism,” says Ms. Majeski. “Their profound loss and their devastating tragedies from the war were not often shared. Instead, they preferred to channel their energy and love into their children. Harri, Jeffrey, and Robert were raised with the understanding that family was everything and everything was family. Roza and Max found comfort in the face of their losses by infusing their boys with love, pride, and laughter.”
“We had a happy family,” adds Mr. Schwartz. “My parents learned English, and when I was growing up, some of my friends would say ‘Your mother has a funny accent, but I didn’t even think about it. I thought everyone sounded like that.”
Hope for the Future
“We knew a lot of other refugee families, and they all became very successful. My father worked hard, with two bakery jobs. People, like us, who came to the U.S., had hope for the future. The whole point was that if you work hard, it can work for you. You can be successful. And, also, education was important. We all knew when we were in the first grade that we were expected to go to college.”
A year in the planning, the gala will be held in the Westin Hotel in Forrestal Vllage on February 28. It will include a video featuring interviews with Holocaust survivors, and the lighting of six candles, commemorating the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, as well as a silent auction, dinner, and dancing.
Eighteen Mercer County area Holocaust survivors will be guests of honor, and 500 other guests are expected to attend, including Geoffrey Schwartz, who plays football for the New York Giants. A “Tribute Journal,” with stories from families remembering their relatives in the Holocaust, will be given to guests.
Both Ms. Majeski and Mr. Schwartz believe the gala’s focus on remembering the Holocaust victims and survivors is timely and necessary. The Holocaust must never be forgotten.
“It is important to remember the Holocaust so it will never happen again,” says Mr. Schwartz. “The Holocaust teaches us that it doesn’t take some thug or back room psychopath to do terrible things. Germany was a nation of cultured people, who were led by this maniac into horrible events.”
“I think it’s important to remember the Holocaust to honor those whose lives were not allowed to fulfill their potential,” points out Ms. Majeski. “It’s our responsibility to tell their story. The Holocaust survivors are relying on us not to allow their relatives to have died in vain.
“This is especially important to me. Knowing that I am the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, when everyone else in their family died, gives me a feeling of profound strength. I am a person of strength, and that came from them. It gives me a real sense of pride.
“When I was in sixth grade,” continues Ms. Majeski, “I mentioned the Holocaust to one of my friends. She said, ‘What’s the Holocaust?’ It had been part of my family’s heritage, and I knew about it, but I really didn’t know how to explain it to her.
“Today, I feel more than ever it is so important that it must never be forgotten.”