University of Miami Students and Holocaust Survivors Share Journeys of Remembrance and Strength

Year-Long Holocaust Survivors Support Internship Program Culminates in Annual Legacy Luncheon

Dr. Jerry Goldsmith taught Vibhu Chittajalu the meaning of the word “mensch.” Chittajalu heard the word for the first time at the funeral of the partner he was assigned through the Holocaust Survivors Support Internship Program (HSSIP) – a two-semester unique learning opportunity that pairs participating students with Holocaust survivors living in South Florida.

The program is administered through the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and the George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies, in the College of Arts & Sciences.

UM student Dania Brener and Holocaust survivor Henry
Fleisher mark the end of their HSSIP partnership and the
beginning of their newfound friendship.

Chittajalu said calling someone a “mensch” is “the highest distinction in the Jewish community,” an honor that Goldsmith showed he deserved in the six months they worked together before his passing. His impact on Chittajalu’s life was significant. “He became a mentor, a role model of principles to represent and goals to achieve. He helped me determine the man I want to be, the moral code to live by, and the life experiences to have.”

Two generations of talent, strength, and powerful connection were on display yesterday, as HSSIP participants gathered for the annual Legacy Luncheon. More than 100 survivors, students, faculty, staff, and program supporters attended the event.

Sarah Akiba shared how her partner, Yankele “Alex” Gross, “opened (her) eyes to hope” after she lost her father to lung cancer. Akiba’s father passed away just a few weeks before she joined the program, and Gross – whom she called “a 21-year-old man stuck in an 86-year-old body” – helped her to deal with her grief and continue her father’s legacy. She said, “Alex taught me that it’s not what I lost, but what I have, that keeps me going.

The students and their partners meet weekly for a full school year, and the students also attend twice-monthly enrichment programs at the Miller Center led by psychologist Dr. Mindy Hersh, a daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Hersh said the students who participate in HSSIP “make us feel good about the future,” adding, “Their processes of discovery and growth have been a highlight of my personal and professional life.”

She praised the students for “embracing the internship while dealing with your own issues in life, showing selfless love, concern and commitment to the survivors.”

Hersh then addressed the survivors, stating, “The students are passionate about you, their remarkable new friends. You have become mentors, and adoptive grandparents. They bear witness to your lives, and will carry your stories forward.”

All participating students keep a journal, where they record their activities with their partners, and note their feelings and any questions that arise.

Kaleyn Lynch shared the story of how her partner, Rachel Steinberger, helped to change the trajectory of her boyfriend’s life, as he struggled after returning from deployment in Afghanistan. Lynch said her boyfriend “had difficulties coping with what he had seen and done” during his tour, and was unable to talk about his experiences – until he met Rachel. “I saw him open up to someone for the first time,” she said, adding, “Rachel is his motivation to get the help he needs, and to stay positive.”

Students must take an academic course on the Holocaust during their participation in the HSSIP; they earn six credits in either Judaic Studies or Religious Studies.

Since HSSIP was launched in 2003, more than 500 students and 200 Holocaust survivors have participated in this life-changing experience.

Survivor Fred Mulbauer, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 and lost both parents at age 13, said that participating in the HSSIP allowed him to keep a promise he made to himself as a teenager in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “I worked hard all day and cried myself to sleep every night. I swore that if I got liberated I would devote my life to telling the world our story. This program is the perfect outlet to do that.”

Many prominent members of Miami’s Jewish Community – who also support the Miller Center and HSSIP – attended the event. They include Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of the Aventura Turnberry Center; Bob Berrin, incoming chair of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation; Andrew C. Hall, chair of the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach; Sue Miller, benefactor of the Miller Center, and her daughter Leslie Miller Saiontz; Harry and Joan Smith; and Greater Miami Jewish Federation CEO Jacob Solomon.

The event was also the last Legacy Luncheon for Miller Center Director of Development and Outreach Maxine Schwartz, who is retiring next month after more than 20 years of service.

Professor Eugene Rothman, associate director for academic development and senior fellow at the Miller Center – who manages the HSSIP program – said, “There is little doubt that for many, if not most of the student participants, this is the most significant experience of their college years.”

He added that interns of “every religion, race and ethnicity represented at the University of Miami” develop “a sense of understanding, empathy and commitment as a result of the program.”

April 30, 2014