Members of the group SHEMA, from left, Sharon Feder, Rachayle...

Members of the group SHEMA, from left, Sharon Feder, Rachayle Deutch, Judy Goldberg and Herb Friend. Credit: Linda Rosier

Herb Friend didn’t learn that his parents and grandparents survived the horrors of the Holocaust until a decade ago. 

His parents kept quiet about the traumas they endured as children and didn’t begin sharing their stories until they were in their 80s and “started to feel their mortality,” said Friend, 72, of Rockville Centre. 

"They didn't want their stories just to disappear into history,” he said. 

But hearing his parents' stories weighed so heavily on Friend that he had nightmares, spurring his wife to urge him to find people with similar backgrounds. That led him to the SHEMA, or Studies in the Holocaust — Education, Memories, Awareness, program at the Cedarhurst Marion & Aaron Gural JCC. The program, which focuses on families of Holocaust survivors, was launched during the pandemic to unite the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and help preserve their stories.

SHEMA's mission is twofold: to collect survivor biographies and share them with the public and to connect survivors and family members with schools so children can learn about the Holocaust.

The group also holds regular Zoom meetings for members.

The center's program has reached thousands of students, said Rachayle Deutsch, the community center’s cultural arts and education director.

“We were realizing that our survivors were really aging out,” Deutsch said. “We started focusing on the second generation. … Our goal is to get the stories out there so they don't disappear with the death of the survivor.” 

Friend’s mother, Pearl, who lived in Poland, was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, along with her mother, Herb Friend recalled.

Her father was sent on a death march with his brothers-in-law but they escaped to Russia, where they were sent to a Soviet labor camp.

Friend’s father, Phillip, escaped Poland with his family to Russia and joined the army, where he liberated concentration camps — including Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic, where Pearl and her mother were taken to from Auschwitz.

After helping reunite Pearl and her family, Friend's parents wed two years later, immigrating to the United States.

Friend lived most of his life without knowledge of the horrors his parents and grandparents endured before they came to New York and settled in Brooklyn. It's not uncommon for Holocaust survivors to keep their stories to themselves until they get older, SHEMA organizers said. 

“Most of our Holocaust survivors are well into their 90s, and we want to be able to ensure that the details [are] solidified into the story, and that's why the children now are carrying on their parents' legacy,” said executive director Stacey Feldman. 

Judy Goldberg, a community center social worker, said children and grandchildren of survivors are the last generations to hear the stories firsthand. 

Both Goldberg and Deutsch are the children of Holocaust survivors. Goldberg’s mother, who was from Belgium, was hidden by a gentile family. Deutsch’s father was sent from Hungary to America before the war in Europe broke out. He joined the U.S. Army and helped liberate concentration camps. 

Now, they both, along with members of SHEMA, feel a responsibility to share and remember their parents’ stories of survival and promote a message of tolerance. 

“I think a lot of second-generation survivors feel that way, especially with the rise of anti-Semitism,” Goldberg said.

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