by Tiffani N. Garlic
The Star-Ledger
April 27, 2009

The students sat transfixed as the black-and-white images of children their age in dirty prison uniforms gazed at them from behind barbed wire fences. And, when those victims of genocide in Rwanda revealed scars from machetes that had hacked their faces and bodies, everyone gasped.

Each day during last week’s three-day 28th annual Make A Difference program, more than 900 students from Montgomery Middle School, Somerset County Vocational Tech High School and Warren County Technical School attended workshops, documentary screenings and panel discussions about past and contemporary genocide around the world.

The program, hosted by the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Raritan Valley Community College, encouraged students to recognize the signs of bigotry and help end it by standing up for others.

Peppy Margolis, director of the institute and a child of Holocaust survivors said she hoped the message got through.

“Truthfully, in today’s age when there’s prejudice, intolerance, and violence all around us, our message is learning about the kinds of consequences that come from all of that. Asking ourselves how we can change our lives with social action,” she said. “It’s important that we educate these children because after a while there will be no more eye-witnesses to this story and someone has to be able to carry on the knowledge so this never happens again.”

The program emphasized the importance of speaking out against hatred and injustice.

Barbara Suozzo, an eighth-grade English teacher at Franklin Township School in Hunterdon County, said, “Some people don’t think that kids in middle school should be exposed to stuff like this, but I beg to differ. I think it’s the right time because they’re open and sensitive to it.”

Suozzo, a teacher for 39 years, said these programs have had a major impact on students’ attitudes, noting that she has seen a decrease in the use of racial slurs and intolerant behavior. Though she admits there’s still a lot of work to do, she said every bit of progress counts.

“It helps us to move forward,” she said. “Sometimes it seems like it’s one step forward one step back, but one step is better than no steps at all.”

Margit Feldman, a founder of the Holocaust and Genocide Resource Center, was sent to a concentration camp when she was 14. She lost 68 of her family members — including her parents — during the Holocaust. Each year, the 79-year-old activist talks of her time in four concentration camps and hopes that sharing her painful experiences will help prevent similar acts.

“I feel that I survived to teach the free world what an uncaring world can do,” she said. “I speak for those who perished. They gave us their voices so that we can speak for them and ensure that this never happens again.”

Former governor Christie Whitman spoke at a luncheon where Holocaust survivors Maud Dahme, Tova Friedman and Ursula Pawel were recognized for promoting tolerance and understanding.

“This learning center and the collaboration of what’s gone on these past three days is an enormously important part of our requirement to continue to educate and remind people of the importance of being an active part of their community and society,” said Whitman. “Those who survived and those of us who hear their message have to be the conscience,” she said, charging the audience with the responsibility to speak up about injustices.

“It is empowering to feel like you’re a witness and that someone is listening,” said Friedman, former executive director of the Jewish Family Services of Somerset, Hunterdon and Warren counties.

Friedman was sent to a concentration camp when she was 5. At 72, she said she finds the slow pace of progress a little disheartening.

“It gets worse,” she said. “The last years you have on earth, it’s terrible to know that horrible acts of genocide are still occurring. When you are young, you have hope that things like this will end, but at my age it’s very painful.”

However, Friedman has no intention of slowing down. “I will speak until my mind goes,” she said.