GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — In 2002, Holocaust survivor Rose Rechnic, of Atlantic City, came to speak to a class taught by Gail Rosenthal, director of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center at Stockton University.
After she spoke, a student asked Rechnic if she had written a book about her life.
“That’s what I want to do,” Rechnic replied. Rosenthal put Rechnic in touch with English instructor Maryann McLoughlin, and the result was “Try to Survive and Tell the World,” the mission given her by her mother.
That first book led to the “Writing as Witness” memoir project at the Holocaust Resource Center, which has matched survivors’ stories with McLoughlin’s patience and writing and editing skills.
The project started slowly, with one or two books a year, then grew to five or six. Now, with about 50 completed and several in the works, the books take up most of McLoughlin’s time and have become a historical memory bank of not only suffering and death, but also hope and resilience.
“It takes a very special person to do this,” Rosenthal said of McLoughlin. “It’s a hard process for some survivors to tell their stories.”
McLoughlin said she is inspired by the strength and warmth of the survivors, even when their stories are heartbreaking. She is not Jewish, and the survivors have taught her as she has helped them.
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“They’ve survived so much, but they are not bitter,” she said. “I would go to their homes and they would make food for me.”
At first, many did struggle to tell their stories. For years, people didn’t want to hear about the horrors of the Holocaust, and survivors were loath to revisit them. But now, as they are aging, the survivors want to make sure no one forgets.
“People should know what happened,” said Ruth Kessler, 82, of Ventnor, who wrote “The Blue Vase,” her story of being sent to England for safety as a child, living with a foster family, then being reunited with her father. The blue vase had belonged to her mother.
“It is easier now to talk about it than it used to be,” Kessler said of her memoir. “My story was not as bad as some, but every story is important.”
She often speaks at schools and said children can relate to her story of living through the war as a child, separated from her family.
Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said the book project is unique and important, especially because many stories are now written by survivors who were children during the war.
“I don’t know of any other place in the country that has made a concerted effort to get books like this,” he said. “They write from a child’s viewpoint, and other children can relate to that.”
He said Stockton also makes an effort to publicize the books, getting them into schools and libraries.
“Holocaust books are not typically big sellers,” Winkler said.
You don’t have to tell that to Rob Huberman, owner of ComTeQ Publishing in Margate, which has published 72 memoirs and other Holocaust-related books, 41 of them for the Holocaust Center. Typically they are small runs, some just intended for family and friends.
“These stories are so important to preserve now,” he said. “Each story is unique and can be used to teach lessons of the Holocaust.”
Stockton student Rebekah Sabo, 20, of Columbus in Burlington County, read “Girl in a Striped Dress” by Rosalie Simon, of Margate, and said it was thrilling to also meet Simon.
“Just seeing how strong she is a person, after what she went through, was inspiring,” she said.
Rosenthal credits the project’s longevity to a core group of supporters such as Huberman, the Roths of Cumberland County — Henry, Barbara, Ed and Judy — who have donated funds to have books distributed in the county, and Harvey and Maddie Revinsky, of Longport, who sponsor an “Adopt a Classroom” program to get the books into schools. Many survivors pay to have their books published, and Stockton has provided graphic design assistance for the covers.
The project also has expanded beyond just survivors to include others involved in the war effort. A recent release, “Forced to War” by Georges Beck, 94, of Little Egg Harbor Township, tells about World War II from the point of view of a French man forced into service by the Germans.
“It is a different kind of story,” Beck said. “It took more than a year. Maryann came here, and I gave her a manuscript, and she helped a lot to get it together.”
McLoughlin said she has always been interested in the Holocaust and has used literature of the period in her writing classes.
She said the books have improved over the years as she gained experience. Early on she worried about getting all the stories done while the survivors are still around to share them. Now she does more research and fact-checking to add historical context. She claims she is not as patient as she is given credit for, although she is clearly loved and respected by the survivors who applauded her at a recent luncheon.
Four more books were recently published, and McLoughlin is still working on several more. She knows there are still a few more stories out there waiting to be told, when the time is right.
“There are some people who still won’t tell their story,” she said.