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Fred Heyman: The Man and the Message

By TARA JENNINGS, Staff Writer

January 16, 2019

On January 10, 2019, North Brunswick students got an opportunity to listen to a Holocaust survivor named Fred Heyman. Mr. Heyman was charismatic, polite, and entertaining, sharing valuable information about his life and urging students to spread love, not hate.

Born in 1929, Heyman spent the Holocaust in Berlin, Germany. His family was fortunate enough to survive the devastating genocide carried out by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, but that doesn’t mean he was completely spared from the horrors of the Holocaust; the memories he shared with the audience certainly proved otherwise.

Heyman’s first anti-Semitic experience came as a child, bullied by classmates after they learned he was Jewish. At that time, Germany’s laws discriminated greatly against Jewish people, and he was expected to sew a Star of David into his clothes so people would know he was Jewish. Heyman and a friend, Rudy, would often use these stars as toys, but even such typical childhood experiences were affected by the Holocaust: Rudy and his family were sent off to a concentration camp one day, and Heyman still regrets that he was never able to say goodbye.

Life in Germany only grew worse. The morning after Kristallnacht (the night of November 9, 1938, in which Jewish stores, synagogues, and schools were attacked), Heyman found that his synagogue and school had both been burned down. Heyman would return to school when he came to America after the war, but he had many more experiences to live through before that day would come.

After Kristallnacht, Jewish people were no longer regarded as citizens. During this time, his family was targeted: Heyman’s father was arrested despite not having broken any laws, and the Gestapo came to their apartment to speak with Heyman and his mother after they visited his dad in prison. While the family was lucky enough to survive this dangerous time, his father never spoke of his experiences in prison, and Heyman can remember his fear even today.

Heyman also had experiences with the Allies, who fought against Hitler and liberated the people of Germany at the end of the war. He admitted that some of these experiences were terrifying, but that, overall, he was grateful even when he was afraid, because he knew the war was coming to an end. Eventually, Heyman was liberated by Soviet soldiers; when he tried to tell them he was Jewish, one soldier said seven words that would stick with Heyman forever: “That’s impossible. Hitler killed all the Jews.”

After the war, Heyman and his parents came to America, where his mother forced him to go to high school. This was difficult for Heyman because he didn’t know English very well, but he did finish school before being drafted into the Korean War, where he served as a machine gunner on the front lines. At the time, he felt that he didn’t belong in Korea, but ultimately, his experiences only reaffirmed what he already felt was true: that he had survived so much horror for a reason.

Mr. Heyman with Mrs. Passner, who arranged for him to come speak at NBTHS. Photo Courtesy of Mrs. Passner's Dimensions of Prejudice Class

This belief was at the core of Heyman’s message. He also encouraged the students of NBTHS to be kind to each other, to be civil, and to spread love instead of hate―all different qualities of “upstanders”. “Upstanders look out for the people who need it,” he explained. Although he does not expect today’s teenagers to understand what it was like to live through the Holocaust, he does urge them to have empathy, to believe in their ability to make a change, and to start appreciating human life. “Hate starts wars,” he said. “The only way to stop that is to be full of love.”

Now nearly ninety years old, Mr. Heyman has established a family of his own and is proud to be doing what he is today. While he understands that many survivors struggle to talk about their experiences, he feels that it is important to discuss what happened during the Holocaust, and that the best way to remember the people who were killed is to tell his story six million times―instead of feeling like six million stories were lost. With this sense of optimism, Fred Heyman and his words undoubtedly made an impact on the students of NBTHS, which will hopefully help change the world for the better.


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