Tag Archives: #holocaust

Was teaching high school a good idea?

I realized early in my adult life that there is a big difference between the career I envisioned and the job I actually had.

I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember.  I would set my dolls around my stand up chalk board and teach them the alphabet. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college for a degree in teaching. My love of reading, combined with my interest in creative writing, made English education the right choice. Keeseville Central had a day every spring called Student Teacher’s Day.  Those of us who were interested and considered responsible were allowed to take over the classes of the teachers for the entire day.  In both my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take over for two of my English teachers.  I spent hours preparing lessons  on Greek and Roman mythology, The Outsiders by S. J. Hinton, and vocabulary.  I absolutely loved this opportunity to play “teacher for a day,” and it confirmed my career path. 

For my first two years at Albany State, I fulfilled several credits taking required courses, including American and English literature survey courses as well as biology, French, and music.  By my junior year, however, I was taking classes that allowed me to learn and participate in the classroom. My methods course required our putting together a unit plan on a specific topic, and my submission on the theme of War and Youth, not only received an A but also was used as a model for several years in the English education department. In my senior year, I finally had a chance to actually teach through my student teaching assignment in a high school in Schenectady, New York.

I thrived in front of a class, and I flourished putting together the lesson plans, the quizzes, the tests.  I spent hours planning and producing the necessary paperwork, but it was worth every minute to implement it. I was rewarded in the end with a five plus out of five score for my student teaching, with my advisor writing in his evaluation that I was a born teacher who was a natural in front of the classroom.

As the graduation date grew near, I started applying for a teaching position.  It was a tough time to get a job; there were not very many openings, and despite excellent evaluation, I couldn’t even get an interview.  In late June, however, a month after graduation, a break came through.  A high school English teacher had handed in his resignation the last day of school as he had decided to start a master’s program, and the principal wanted to fill the position before he left for his summer vacation.  I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot.  

There was only one difficulty: the teacher I was replacing taught very unusual classes. Along with a standard tenth grade English class, he also taught numerous electives on such topics of supernatural fiction, science fiction, the police state in literature, and the American cinema. Because students had already chosen their courses that spring, I would be responsible for developing and implementing the curricula for the classes.  Over that summer, I read the novels and started creating plans.

The tenth grade students I greeted that first day took the change in teachers in stride, but the juniors and seniors who had signed up for the electives were disappointed to find that their anticipated teacher was gone and instead had a new, young teacher with high ideals and higher expectations.

This challenge was even made more difficult by what I learned from the students.  My predecessor had held seances during the supernatural classes, and the students in the cinema had spent time making movies. The initial comments from many entering my classroom were “Who are you? And what happened to the fun guy?”

I was at a complete loss in the Police State in Literature course:  The books ordered for the class included Brave New World, 1984, and Night. Meanwhile, many of the students were reading two or three years below grade level, certainly way below the level of the novels attached to the course. Especially problematic for me was teaching about the Holocaust. I was one of two Jewish teachers in the entire district in a school district with no Jewish students.

The result was an absolute disaster.  Despite a supportive principal and and supportive faculty, I was in over my head.  I spent every minute out of class working on lesson plans, projects, quizzes, including most weekends, but the plans that had served me so well in Methods and student teaching fell flat.  In addition to my difficulty with the implementation, I also was challenged by maintaining discipline. I was twenty-two years old, highly idealistic, and totally out of tune with those students who lacked motivation and any interest in what I was trying to do.  Although the majority of the students were good, a small group made it a point to see if they could disrupt my class. They talked, they threw spitballs, they refused to participate. It was a horrible year. After spending years dreaming about being a teacher, I realized that nothing I had done in college had ever prepared me to handle a real class, a real job.

By June, I was exhausted, stressed, and seriously wondering if I could learn enough from my first year to handle a second year in the classroom.  But the worst moment of that first year was yet to come.  About three weeks before graduation, yearbooks came in, and students were passing around their own copies for signatures from classmates and from teachers.  Two seniors, the children of highly respected members of the community,  came up to me with their yearbooks. With big smiles on their faces, asked me to autograph my picture. When they handed them to me, I was shocked and stunned to see that they had both drawn swastikas around my picture. I slammed the books shut, refusing to sign and making some comment about how some day they would look back on their yearbooks with shame. I told the principal, who called them in, but I don’t remember  the outcome of that discussion.

I did return in September.  I was more confident, more organized, more prepared, but I found teaching high school an uphill battle, a completely different experience than what I had dreamed.  I left in January, eighteen months after I started, enrolled in University of Albany’s master program in reading, and subsequently got a job teaching adult education.  It was in that scenario that I found my niche; classes were small and individualized, low-key, and I found it easy to relate to adult students, many of them highly motivated and focused in their wish to improve their reading and writing skills and obtain their General Equivalency Diploma (GED).

It has been almost fifty years since I walked out of my first teaching position.  I still think back to that experience and wonder if I could have done more to find a way to hold on until I gained enough experience and maturity to handle the real high school classroom.  I also wonder what happened to those two students who got so much pleasure that day from seeing my face when I saw those hated Nazi symbols next to my picture. Did they forget about it as soon as they graduated? Did their yearbooks land up on a dusty shelf, never to be looked at again?  Or do they occasionally pull out that book like I have done with my own high school yearbook, reminisce over pictures of their friends and their club shots.  Or do they come across my picture and felt regret, embarrassment, and shame? 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the February 27, 2014, issue.

We continue and they continue: The Czech Torahs

Each Memorial Scroll is a memory of the past and a messenger for the future” Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K.

They escaped destruction by the Nazis. They survived Communism, They found their ways to new homes around the world. This is a story of three Torahs that had their roots in vanished Czechoslovakian Jewish communities.

Up until World War II, Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish population that first reached the area over 1000 years ago. With the rise of Hitler came increased anti-Semitism and eventually The Final Solution. Throughout Europe, synagogues were burned and the vast majority of Jews were murdered. Almost all Jewish artifacts—Torahs, candlesticks, heprayerbooks—were destroyed.

 The one exception was the Bohemia and Moravia, with its population of 115,000 Jews. This area in Czechoslovakia was declared a “German protectorate”. Miraculously, except for the items in Sudetenland, most of the artifacts remained unscathed during the early years of the war.

In 1942, the Nazis ordered all Jewish synagogue possessions in the region to be sent to Prague. The Jewish communities of Prague, believing the Judaica would be safer if stored in one place, worked closely with the Nazis to collect and catalogue over 210,000 items. In the end, it took 40 warehouses to store the treasure. Unfortunately, nearly every Jew who worked on the project were sent to their deaths in the concentration camp. 

The Czech Torahs survived the war but almost did not survive Communism. The Torah and other scrolls, believed to number between 1800 and 2200, lay in a musty, damp warehouse until 1963. At that point, Czech government, in need of foreign currency, sold the scrolls to Ralph Yablon, a philanthropist and founder member of Westminster Synagogue in London. On February 5, 1964,  1564 Torah and other scrolls arrived at the synagogue. They were divided into three categories: those in usable condition, those in need of some repair; and those deemed too far damaged to be restored.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust was then set up to preserve and restore the Czech scrolls. Each one had an identity plaque fixed to  one of the etz chaim, the wooden shafts onto which the Torah is rolled. They were loaned out to Jewish communities and organizations around the world in need of a Torah, with the understanding that the congregation was responsible for the scroll’s upkeep. The Torah, as per stipulations by the MST, were never sold or donated but allocated on loan on the understanding that they would only need to be returned if the synagogue no longer operated. According to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, MST, 1400 scrolls have been allocated on loan around the world. Approximately 150 scrolls remain in the Memorial Scrolls Trust museum, which also has some 500 binders and wimples.

At least six Czech scrolls are on loan in the Capital District and surrounding areas: Beth Emeth, Congregation Ohav Shalom, Gates of Heaven, Temple Sinai, Congregation Beth Shalom, and Congregation Beth El.

I first had the honor of holding a Holocaust Torah as a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clifton Park, New York. In1981, the synagogue requested from MST a replacement for three that had been stolen. Abbey and Richard Green, CBS congregants, helped fund the costs of shipping the Czech Torah MST#293 (circa1870) from London. A tag, dating back to the dark days of the Shoah, read “The Elders of the Jewish Community in Prague”.

At the time, Beth Shalom was less than ten years old, an irony that was not lost on one of its congregant. Yetta Fox, herself the child of Holocaust survivors, stated that having the Torah at a new congregation was “almost like a second life.”“Having lost one community,” said Yetta, “there is now a new community that can nurture this Torah.”

Early in 2007, the congregation arranged to have needed repairs done on the parchment of the 137-year-old Torah. That June, the congregation held a rededication ceremony, which included a procession from the Clifton Park town hall to the synagogue five minutes up the road. During the march, the scrolls were passed from hand to hand under a chuppah that the children of the Hebrew school had decorated with Stars of David. Upon its arrival, the Torah was wrapped in a wimple, the cloth traditionally used to wrap a boy at his circumcision. “This is our baby,” said Fred Pineau, a former president, “so we’re wrapping it on our Torah.”

David Clayman, the current president, reported that the Torah is still in good condition. To preserve it, however, it is left rolled to Parasah Beshalach, which contains “The Song of the Sea,” gently unrolling it only once a year as prescribed by the MST. Every year, in the month of Shevat, the torah is brought out and Beshalach is chanted. “The scroll is so fragile, we are afraid to roll it to other parashot,”said David. The congregation brings out the Holocaust scroll twice more each year to be ceremonially held: On Kol Nidre, the solemn service commemorated during the opening hours of Yom Kippur; and on Simchas Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of Deuteronomy, and the beginning of Genesis.

When we moved to Florida, we joined Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which was founded in 1981, ironically the same year Congregation Beth Shalom had received its Czech Torah. Initially, congregants met at the Kissimmee Women’s Club. When Harry Lowenstein, a Holocaust survivor whose parents and sister number among the six million Jews killed during World War II, joined with his wife Carol, he began to press for a building of their own. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” Starting with a $120,000 contributions from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the Lowensteins through their own and other contributions raised another $60,000 for building expenses.

As the synagogue on Pleasant Hill Road neared completion, the Lowensteins worked to obtain the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah finials, and the Yartzheit (memorial) board. Most important to the congregation, however, was to obtain a Torah.

Lowenstein and other members reached out to the Memorial Scrolls Trust, noting in the correspondence that four of its members were Holocaust survivors. “Our Temple will be dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” wrote then president Henry Langer. “We would therefore deem it an honor to have you lend us a Scroll for our Temple.” With the Lowenstein’s financial support, they were able to obtain Scroll MST#408, from Pisek-Strakonice in what was then Czechoslovakia, about 60 miles south of Prague and dated back to circa 1775.

Once they received word that they would indeed be loaned a Czech TorahThe Lowensteins asked British friends who had a vacation home near the synagogue to be responsible for getting it from Heathrow to Orlando International airport. “[Our friend] sat on the plane with the Torah on his lap for 12 hours,” recalled Carol Lowenstein. “He would not let it out of his sight until he could hand the Torah to Harry.”

For those who had miraculously escaped hell, welcoming the Torah was like welcoming another Holocaust survivor. “It’s like holding a piece of history” said Phil Fuerst in a 1993 Orlando Sentinel article. “You feel like you own a piece of a world that survived.”

According to Marilyn Glaser, the congregation president, The congregation is making arrangement for the atzei chayim, which are broken, to be replaced in accordance of the terms of the loan agreement with MST.

In 1982, Sharon and Barry Kaufman, now residents of Kissimmee, obtained a Czech Torah in honor of their daughter Robin’s Bat Mitzvah for their Texas synagogue their congregation in Spring, Texas in honor of their daughter Robin’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah. While awaiting completion of their new building, Jewish Community North, a congregation in Spring Texas, was holding services at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church. Their only torah was on temporary loan from another Houston-area synagogue. The Kaufmans worked with Rabbi Lawrence Jacofsky, the regional director of the United Association of Hebrew Congregations, to obtain Torah Scroll MST#20, written circa 1850.

When their precious cargo arrived at the Houston airport in February 1982, Barry and Sharon immediately brought the Torah to the church to show Father Ed Abell, Good Shepherd’s priest and their good friend. The three of them carefully unrolled the scroll where it had last been read: Yom Kippur 1938. The tenth of Tishri 5699 ( October 4 and 5, 1938.) Shortly after that service, the Jews that had worshipped in the Kostelec/Orlici synagogue were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, most—maybe all— never to return. 

To commemorate the moment and to the shock and awe of the Kaufmans, Father Abell, using the yad (pointer) from the loaner Torah, read from the scroll in flawless Hebrew. That evening, Sharon and Barry brought the Torah home to show Robin. As they slowly unrolled the entire scroll on their pool table to make sure is was undamaged, they found a cardboard tag that had been attached when the scroll was catalogued by Jewish librarians and curators when the scroll arrived at the Central Jewish Museum Prague during the Shoah. Aeltesternrat der Juden Prague, it read in German. Elders of the Jews of Prague. 

At Robin’s bat mitzvah in May 1982, the Torah was dressed in a cover sewn and embroidered by Barry’s mother. In a moving speech to the congregation held at Good Shepherd, Barry spoke eloquently about the Torah’s history.

If this Torah could talk—might it share with us the heart-wrenching knowledge of a prosperous people whose world had suddenly been taken from them, whose home and synagogues were gutted and destroyed for the value of their belongings? Would it tell us of the helpless terror in the fragile hearts of old men and women forced to watch their children brutally slaughtered before their own end was to come?”

After Barry spoke, the Ark was opened, and the Czech Torah was passed from the rabbi to Barry to Sharon to Robin. Clutching it tightly, Robin walked through the congregation. For the first time in two generations, a B’nai Mitzvot carried it with joy and reverence throughout a tearful congregation.

Three Czech Torahs. Three congregations. Thankfully, in the end, the Nazi’s plan to eradicate the Jewish people. As Gloria Kupferman stated in her speech at the rededication of the Congregation Beth Shalom Torah in 2007, “We are by no means extinct. We are alive. We are thriving.”

Special thanks to Jeffrey Ohrenstein, Chair, Memorial Scrolls Trust, London, U.K. Thanks to David Clayman, Yetta Fox, Marilyn Glaser, Frank Gutworth, Harry Lowenstein, Flo Miller, and Sharon and Barry Kaufman for their input.

Published in Jewish World (Capital Region NY), June 9, 2022 and Heritage Jewish News (Orlando, Fl) June 10, 2022

Sources:

https://www.albany.edu/news/releases/2005/nov2005/holocaust_scroll.shtml

www.cjcn.org

http://www.congregationbethshalomcp.webs.com

www.czechtorah.org/thestory.php.

www.memorialscrollstrust.org.

http://www.shalomaleichem.com

Holocaust Stories Needed!

“You really need to talk to Harry.”

My friend Marilyn Glaser gave me this advice before one of our Friday night Shabbat services in our Florida synagogue. I was aware that Harry Lowenstein was a Holocaust survivor. But Marilyn, the shul president, knew I was a writer, and she knew his story needed to be preserved.

By this time, I had been writing for the (Capital Region, NY) Jewish World for over four years. The majority of my stories had been about my family: growing up in a small North Country town in New York; meeting my husband in 1973 to learning to live with him after our retirement in 2010; raising two children; moving to “The Sunshine State” in 2015. Up until that point, I had not tackled biographies. Fortunately, Harry was a willing story teller.

 As I sat at his kitchen table, I was riveted by his description of four years of hell, first in a ghetto and then in Nazi concentration camps. After liberation, Harry returned home to find that every one of his relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. He eventually made it to the United States, married Carol Sainker, raised three children, and owned and operated a clothing store in Kissimmee. Meanwhile, he was determined to carry on his family’s legacy. “I saw a synagogue burn,” said Harry, “and I was determined to build another one.” With the contributions from friends and fellow Holocaust survivors, the Lowensteins raised enough money to build our synagogue.

After Harry’s story was published, my writing became more diversified. I was still writing my sometimes funny, sometimes poignant family stories, but I also took pleasure from interviewing what I referred to as “ordinary people with extraordinary lives.” A woman who has raised over $150,000 for cancer research after losing her 32 year old daughter to leukemia. A man whose introduction to a doomed ship as a boy resulted in his becoming a “Titanic fanatic;” a group of former Catskill workers celebrating a reunion.

But the stories that moved me the most were about who lived through—or died in—World War II. Jewish soldiers. Concentration survivors who were haunted with their memories until their passing. Righteous gentiles who had rescued others from the horrors. 

I have never been shy about my retirement avocation and never fail to tell friends and strangers I am a writer. This summer, I shared this information with Eva Nozik, who was visiting Summit County, Colorado. 

“My aunt, Golda Goldin Gelfer, who recently passed away, was a Holocaust survivor,”Eva said.”You need to talk to her children.” 

She set up a Zoom call with Anna Livits and Sofia Zukerman, Golda’s two daughters, and other members of the Goldin family. The Nazis, they told me, invaded Glusk, Belarus, on June 22, 1942, Golda’s 14th birthday. Six months later, Germans and local supporters rounded up and murdered over 1000 Jews, including Golda’s mother Elke and her two sisters, Chaisoshe (19) and Malka (8). Golda and her father Meir escaped certain death by hiding in an attic and eventually finding their way into the forest. The two soon joined Soviet partisans in their efforts to sabotage the Nazi offensive until Belarussian liberation on July 4, 1944. Several revisions (and many nightmares about the Holocaust) later, it was finished and ready The Jewish World’s next issue.

Even before it was published,, Anna expressed her gratitude. “I don’t have enough words to thank you for the work you have done,”she wrote me in a December 13 email. “I had a dream today that my mom was smiling. It’s like  she was in peace that we remember her family, Elke, Chaisoshe, and Malka.”

The descendants of Meir and Elke Goldin have more stories to tell. They are eager to recount Golda’s time in the woods, her life in the Soviet Union after the war, her move with her children to the United States. They also want me to connect with the son of a cousin who survived “murder by bullets” by falling into the pit.And, by the way, they have a friend whose parents survived the Warsaw ghetto. 

Meanwhile, I have other stories on my “To Be Written” file. My cousin Eric (Z’L) Silverman came over on a stolen visa just before the war. Trudi Larkin Wolfe’s parents, both concentration camp survivors, recently passed away, but their oral history is preserved on video as part of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project, and she and her sister will fill in any gaps. Ruth Gruber, a brilliant Jewish woman who was appointed by the FDR administration to oversee the Oswego Project, a refuge for Jews that is the subject of a New York State Museum exhibit. And I made a promise to a friend that I would write an article about his father, who came to the United States in the early 1900s via, of all places, China.

After hearing Golda’s story at the most recent meeting of SOL Writers, my group of fellow writers said that I am “a woman on a mission.” “You make the unbearable bearable,” one said. “Keep writing.”

Despite my passion, I initially questioned about pursuing more stories about this terrible time in humankind’s history.The Holocaust has already been the subject of innumerable novels, memoirs, plays, movies, and, and even children’s books.

I found the answer in a teaching from Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinic Jewish tradition. It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work,” wrote Rabbi Tarfon (46 CE-117 CE), “but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) When the Anti-Defamation League reports that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms have “cracks in enforcement” that allow Holocaust deniers to disseminate hate speech; when a school administrator in Texas can tell a group of educators during a training session to “have an opposing view” when teaching the Holocaust; when 77 years after Soviets liberated Auschwitz, anti-semitism is on the rise; I must continue to tell the stories. My writing will certainly not “complete” the work of masters such as Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankel, and Steven Spielberg. But I cannot use that as an excuse.Whether my articles and, in the future, my book is widely read or languishes in an Amazon warehouse, at least I did not “desist.”

But I need help. If any of you have a Holocaust story you would like to be preserved in writing, please contact me via email at shapcomp18@gmail. com. Those who were lost as well as those who survive deserve to have their lives remembered and honored. Never again.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

“You make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have a book that has an opposing view,” a Carroll County,Texas, administrator recently told a group of educators during a training session on what books were allowed in their library. Fierce backlash resulted in an apology and an investigation, but to many it hammered home the fear, denial, and outright ignorance that surrounds the teaching as well as recognition of the reality of the systematic murder of six million Jews. For that reason, there will never be “too many stories” about the Holocaust, including that of Galina “Golda” Goldin Gelfer (Z’L).

On June 22, 1941, Golda woke up on her 14th birthday to a beautiful sunny day in Glusk [now known as Hlusk], Belarus. Despite her family’s status as Jews in a highly anti-Semitic country, she and her family—her father Meir, her mother Elke, her eight year old sister Malke, and a large extended family— were happy in their small shtetl. Then, their world changed when news that Germany had declared war on the Soviet Union. Five days later, Nazis marched into their town. Soon after, Golda’s older sister, Chaisoshe returned home to join her family after Minsk University was evacuated, walking the last 30 miles with a friend. With limited means of escape, the entire Jewish population was trapped.

All Jews were registered and forced to wear yellow stars on the clothes and post the yellow stars on their homes. A Judencrat (Jewish council of three men) was formed to organize labor. While Chaisoshe remained hidden in their homeMeir and Golda worked long hours in menial jobs: cleaning and plowing the streets, digging up bricks, and mucking out horse stalls. All other work by Jews was forbidden.“We performed useless task mainly to make us feel we were slaves,” Golda later wrote in an autobiographic essay in The Holocaust DID Happen. (Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, 2010) 

For the next five months, as reports of mass executions of Jews in neighboring villages were reported, Golda and her family lived in absolute fear. On December 2, 1941, their worst nightmare was realized when they learned in the early morning hours that Nazis were beginning to round up all the Jews in Glusk for a “death march.” As the Goldin dressed in multiple layers of clothes and hastily packed bundles of food, they made plans to split up, run, and hide. Chaisoshe and a college friend were first to leave.“ You have some friends,” Elke told her husband. “Take a child. You may survive.” As Meir took Golda’s hand, Golda grabbed Malka’s. But Elke insisted that her youngest child hide with her in their shed.

Meir, Golda, and another relative they found in the street began frantically knocking on the doors of their Russian neighbors, begging for places to hide. But they were repeatedly turned away because of fear, ignorance, or indifference.The circle of Germans, politsaislocal collaborators, and dogs surrounding them grew tighter.

The three finally found refuge in the attic of an abandoned store on the main street. They climbed up to a loft filled with hay and silently watched the street below. The streets were soon filled with dushegubka, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed internal gas chamber, As the Nazis forced women and children into the black-topped vans, Golda recalled in 2010 Yad V’Shem video, could hear a single woman screaming in agony as the van moved towards a former hospital that the Germans had converted into the slaughterhouse.

When these precursors to the gas chambers used in the concentration camps could no longer keep up with the number to be killed, the remaining Jews were herded together by Germans and the politsais. They were helped by local residents who joyfully made a game out of rounding up anyone trying to escape. “Jude! Jude,” they would yell to the Nazis, who would then shoot the “offender” and leave the corpse on the street. The numb, terrified victims could do little but march to their almost certain deaths.

Throughout the terrifying day, Meir, Golda, and the cousin heard the sounds of gunfire from Myslotino Hill, an area two and a half miles outside of Glusk. They learned later that over 1000 Jews men, women, and children were killed in a volley of bullets and then thrown in pits prepared earlier by the Germans. 

At two a.m., all was quiet. Praying that somehow members of their family had survived, the three fugitives descended from the hideout and began walking to the town’s outskirts.They narrowly missed falling into the hands of a roving band of Russian murderers who were “drunk on blood and vodka” and bragging about the number of Jews they had killed.

The threesome began their trek through deep snow and bitter cold to Zhivun, a village 23 miles from Glusk. As Meir had been born, raised, and, as an adult, done business there, they hoped to find help. While in route, Meir and Golda hid in the forest while the relative attempted to enlist the aid of friends. The two heard a volley of bullets, and the cousin never returned. 

Meir and Golda had better luck. For the next six months, Golda stayed with the local peasants helping with housework and, when necessary, being spirited from home to nearby forest to another home to escape discovery by the Nazis.Meanwhile, in between trips back to Zhivun, Meir worked with the partisans, members of the resistance movements who lived in the forest. The war had not lessened their anti-semitic feelings as they were initially reluctant to accept Meir into their circle. Meir, however, proved to be worthy comrades, helping the partisans to bomb railroads, ambush German convoys, and do whatever they could to fight the German forces.

During this time, two eleven year olds they encountered in Zhivun who had also escaped from Glusk gave Meir and Golda the bad news regarding the Goldin family. The two children initially had hidden with Elke and Malka until Elke told them to go back into the village where she correctly believed their blonde hair and blue eyes would help them blend in with the Gentile population. Two days later, a Belarussian neighbor and his son, with whom the Goldin had had a close relationship before the Nazi invasion, came to search for valuables and steal the cow. They found Elke and Malka hiding in the hay and turned them over the Nazis, who killed them. Chaisoshe and her friend met the same fate two days later when four local teenagers found their hiding place and turned them over to the Germans for bounty money. Meir and Golda later learned that 32 members of the Goldin family they had left behind had been killed.

Once he was established with the partisans Meir went back to Zhivun to get his daughter, who was at fifteen now old enough to participate in the guerrilla warfare. In addition, a Jewish doctor who joined the ragtag group enlisted the help of Golda and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee in providing needed medical assistance. (The two woman remained lifelong friends.)

Meir and Golda survived in the forest for the next two years, living as did the real-life partisans portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. They finally gained their “freedom” on July 4, 1944, when Belarus celebrated heir victory over the Germans (The Germans and Soviets continued fighting through May 1945).“Freedom,” however, still had its limitations. When they first met with Red Army soldier, their initial comment was, “I thought the Nazis killed all of you Jews!” Meir, Golda, and the new families they created after the war lived in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when, upon Golda’s insistence, relocated to the United States.

Golda’s story has been saved for posterity in her two hour interview in Russian as part of Steven Speilberg’s Shoah project. In addition, her descendants continue to carry on her and the Goldin legacy through their family reunions, Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic, and through their sharing this story with me. No, Texas, there is no “opposing view to the Holocaust.” Just ask those, like Golda, who lived to tell their tale. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Holocaust survivor Albert Kitmacher and his five miracles

Looking steadily into the camera, Al Kitmacher recounted his personal story of the Holocaust for the Bay Area [California] Holocaust Oral History Project. He told of his early life in Poland, his year with his family in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his subsequent sometimes miraculous survival in work camps, in salt mines, and on a death march.

“You have great composure,” commented Rick Levine, the interviewer.

“I could never open up and tell my story before,” said Kitmacher. “But I am in the twilight of my life, and I have to tell the story to somebody.”

Kitmacher had had the last physical scar from his horrors—a tattoo with the initials KL (Koncentration Lager, German for concentration camp), removed in the 1970s. But Kitmacher could never remove the emotional scars. The memories, the survival guilt, the nightmares were only kept at bay with a lifetime reliance on medication. It was only at the urging of his son Ira that the 74-year-old Kitmacher finally shared the horrors he and his family had endured. 

Albert Leon Kitmacher was born in Lublin, Poland in 1920, one of the four children of Miriam Naiman, a seamstress, and Gershon Kitmacher, a tailor. Gershon could not find work locally, he spent much of his time in Berlin. 

Soon after Hitler was named German Chancellor in 1933, Gershon was forced to leave Berlin because he was Jewish. The Kitmachers left their predominately Jewish neighborhood and moved to Warsaw to find employment. Al Kitmacher’s formal education ended, and he joined his father to work as a tailor.

By 1938, as things were getting more precarious for Jews, many were fleeing Poland. Gershon, however, refused to leave. “All Germans were not bad people,” he assured his family. With great reluctance, Kitmacher decided to remain with his parents; his two older sisters, Sara and Freida; and his younger brother Yitzhak. 

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Europe was at war. Kitmacher’s worst fears were realized when his immediate and extended family were forced to pack up whatever they could carry on pushcarts and move into the Warsaw ghetto.

Conditions in the ghetto were horrible. The family subsisted on one meager loaf of bread a day, shared a toilet with three other families, and sponge bathed only using a pot of heated water. Nights were especially frightening: they heard the sounds of German motorcycles and gunfire as people trying to escape were shot. 

Kitmacher worked for the Germans outside the ghetto where he was fed minimal amounts of food. He searched each night to make sure he brought no extras home upon penalty of death.

After a year of increasingly untenable conditions, Al and Freida made the decision to risk everything to save their family. They executed a daring early morning escape from the ghetto. Once outside the gates, they rolled down their sleeves to hide their yellow stars and boarded a train-without tickets. In what Kitmacher would later remember as his first miracle, they managed through trickery and bribes to reach Chelm, Germany, where members of their extended family were living. A second cousin, who was also a tailor, arranged for papers to be sent to Warsaw stating the need for the rest of the family to join them to sew German uniforms. Kitmacher’s parents and Yitzhak were allowed to leave, but Sara was taken away. Even the official papers could not save her.

The remaining family rented a room on a farm owned by Jews until forced into another ghetto in Jenishoff. Here, Kitmacher worked ten hours a day digging an irrigation ditch until a combination of sunburn and illness resulted in Yitzhak, taking his place. When Yitzhak was caught smuggling food back to his family, he was beaten so badly that he also could not work. He was taken away and, like Sara, never seen again.

Soon after, Jenishoff was liquidated. Kitmacher’s parents and Freida were packed into a cattle car. His last memory of seeing them alive was watching as Gershon was struck down by a guard when he tried to follow his son.

Kitmacher, now alone, was sent to Buzzyn, a concentration work camp near Treblinka, where he and fellow prisoners spent 10 to 12 exhausting hours a day digging ditches subsisting on just enough food to survive. The Ukrainian guards were brutal, and people were killed daily for the slightest infraction. 

It was at Buzzyn that Kitmacher experienced his second miracle. After a terrifying nightmare in which he struggled to overpower a large bird by pushing him out of what appeared to be his father’s Warsaw tailor shop. Kitmacher woke up bathed in sweat, feverish, and weak Despite these symptoms of typhus, he connected his dream to his survival and asked a fellow prisoner to help him get to that day’s work assignment—digging potatoes. While in the field, he shared his dream with a religious man. “That is a good sign,” Kitmacher was told. “You fought the devil and won.” That night, he returned to the barracks and learned that the over 100 men who had stayed behind had been shot and killed.

When Buzzyn was closed, Kitmacher was assigned to an underground armaments factory set up by Germans in the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland.Over 1,700 prisoners worked in dark, dank conditions 1,072 feet below ground. Feeling as if he were buried alive, Kitmacher told his Polish captors that he was a sheet metal worker with hopes that a future assignment would be at least outdoors. 

Based on this new “skill,” Kitmacher was assigned to the Flossenberg camp where he and fellow prisoners a mix of Jews, political prisoners or “undesirables,” produced Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes and other armaments for Germany’s war effort. When a guard threatened to kill him if he did not give him his breakfast, Kitmacher escaped death again when the known bully and murderer was discovered making moonshine with another guard and taken away. It was Kitmacher’s third miracle. 

By mid-1944, the prisoners learned through the guards that Russian troops were advancing. The prisoners were herded into a train, where Kitmacher found a spot in the lower bunk. Several miles into their journey, the train was blasted by the English Royal Air Force. People in the upper bunks were killed, but Kitmacher had again escaped. This was his fourth miracle.

The train was damaged beyond use, so the Germans gave the prisoners each a blanket and a daily ration of one small turnip and forced them to march in the rain and cold for what Kitmacher remembered as several weeks. The dead or near dead were left by the side of the road. Once, when Kitmacher could not gather the strength to move another inch, he heard a voice behind him yell,“Kitmacher, don’t stop now!” Motivated by that anonymous angel, he kept walking.

Out of the hundreds that had started the march, only fifty emaciated prisoners straggled into what was to be their final destination, Stamsried, Germany, near the Czech boarder.The mayor of the town gathered them in the village market place with plans to kill them. It was then that Kitmacher had one final miracle. At that moment, American troops rolled into town. The officials disappeared. Kitmacher, an 82-pound living skeleton, had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and four German concentration camps. 

Kitmacher spent several weeks in a hospital. Over the next several months, while working on a farm, Kitmacher recovered physically but suffered emotional scars that never heal. He was put on anti-depressants, a prescription that he continued throughout his life. 

Kitmacher searched fruitlessly for his immediate family, who tragically had all perished. His only remaining relative was a cousin, Rose, who had lost her husband and baby. 

Kitmacher moved to a former Jewish ghetto in Munich, where he did tailoring work for Jewish people who were moving to Israel. He planned to move to Israel until another surviving cousin dissuaded him as Palestinians and Jews were in the midst of fighting for control from the British.

In 1949, Kitmacher obtained U.S. immigration papers through Jewish sponsors in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1951 he met and married Pearl Harris, who had served as a WAVE in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They settled in Pearl’s home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they raised four children, Miriam, Lois, Gary, and Ira. Although he owned his own tailor shop for a short time, Al spent most of his career working at Besse-Clarke Men’s Store.

Although Kitmacher said that his wife and children “saved my life,” he continued to suffer from nightmares and insomnia. “I am fine all day,” he stated in his 1994 interview. “But every night when I lay down it comes back to me.” He also experienced survivor’s guilt. “Why am I the only one who survived?” he stated, “My family, my parents were nice people. Why did it happen to them? It is was not fair!” 

Did Kitmacher hold anger? “After the liberation, if given a gun, I would have killed the bastards,” he said in the 1994 interview. “Today, I am too old and too tired to do anything.” He quickly aded, “I was not brought up to hate, but I will never forgive them.” 

His daughter Lois Karhinen, a resident of Queensbury, NY, recalled that growing up in the home of a Holocaust survivor was not easy. She called him a sensitive, sometimes bitter man who could not communicate well emotionally. “My mother attended to my father and sacrificed her sense of self for him,” Lois said. “We children were an afterthought.”

Like all her siblings, Lois knew little about her father’s background until he shared his story on video, which is now part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum collection in Washington, DC. “I am glad that I was able to hear his story while he was still alive,” said Lois, “as it makes me understand so much about the way he was when I was growing up.”It has also given her a chance to forgive.

So much has been written about the Holocaust. Novels. Memoirs. Plays. And each echos the theme of “Never Again!” But have we really learned from the past? Millions of words later, we are facing a terrifying upswing in anti-Semitism. What can we do? We can keep writing, keep recording, keep remembering. And we can make sure that the voices of the those like Albert Kitmacher who survived and his family who perished are preserved. 

Sources:

Published in The Jewish World on November 5, 2020 and Heritage Florida Jewish News November 6, 2020

An Unsung Hero Rescued by Three Teenagers

Before leaving for Colorado in 2017, my husband Larry was checking our packed bookcase for something to read during our week’s stay. He walked into the kitchen holding Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project. 

“Have you read it?” Larry asked.

“I don’t even remember having it,” I responded. 

Larry opened the front cover and found a note from Cindy Smith, a friend of ours from Clifton Park who had moved to Arizona several years before. 

“Thought you would enjoy this,” the note read. “My daughter Heather is good friends with Megan Stewart, one of the people in the book.”

“You HAVE to read this book, Marilyn!” Larry repeated both on the plane and on quiet moments in Frisco. I complied, and I soon was as enraptured as Larry. As schools and colleges across the country open, the story within  a story of a high school project that brought world recognition to a virtually unknown Holocaust heroine is worthy of retelling. 

In September 1999, Norm Conard, a high school social studies teacher in the small rural community of Uniontown, Kansas, encouraged his students to participate in an extracurricular project for the annual National History Day event. Conard gave a ninth grader, Elizabeth “Liz” Cambers, a folder with a clipping from a March 1994 issue of the US News and World Report entitled “The Other Schindler.” Circled in red ink were few paragraph about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker. “She gave nearly 2,500 children new identities, and buried their real names for safekeeping,” read the first paragraph. The article outlined how the Polish social worker successfully smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto and to safety. When Cambers asked Conard if Sendler was famous, the teacher said that he had never heard of her.”You could check it out,” said Conard. “Unsung heroes. Anyone can change the world, even you.”

Cambers was intrigued and decided to use the snippet of information as a springboard for a National History Day project. Conard recruited two other students to work with her: classmate Megan Stewart, and an eleventh grader Sabrina Coons. Their research in the upcoming weeks included information from The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) and first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area who were willing to share their stories. The team decided that they could best represent Sendler’s story in the form of a ten minute play, which they called Life in a Jar, depicting scenes of Sendler interacting with the captives in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Over the course of the next three months, the team learned more of Sendler’s story. Most Polish gentiles did little in 1940 when Hitler herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto while awaiting liquidation. Sendler, a Roman Catholic, mange to obtain a permit through her job as a social worker to enter the ghetto on the pretense to look for signs of typhus. Shocked by the deplorable condition, Sendler joined ZEGOTA, an underground group dedicated to helping the Jews. Realizing the inevitable tragedy unfolding, she persuaded parents and grandparents to allow her to bring children to safety. 

Sendler and others in the network took babies and children past the Nazi guards using many means of escape—smuggling them out in carpenter’s boxes, coffins, and ambulance, Once the children were outside the ghetto, she set up adoptions in the homes of Gentile Polish families or hideaways in convents and orphans. In order to keep track of the children, she and her network made lists of the children’s real names, put them in glass jars, and buried them in her garden. 

The three teenagers’ research stopped short of finding out what had happened to Sendler. Through the JFR, they learned that a son lived in Warsaw but letters to him went unanswered. Efforts to find Sendler’s burial place were futile as well. 

In late January 2000, the three teens performed a well-received dress rehearsal in Uniontown. Soon after, the JRF: shared stunning news. Sendler was alive and living in Warsaw, Poland.The girls immediately wrote a letter to the address given describing their play, asking several questions, and sharing their admiration for her courage. “You are one of the great women of the past century,” they wrote.

In February 2000, Mr. Conard and the three girls drove to Columbus, Kansas, for the state competition, where Life in a Jar won first prize in the performance category. News of the play spread rapidly, and they were swamped with numerous requests to perform throughout Kansas. 

Soon after,Sendler responded in Polish to their initial letter. With the help of a translator, they were able to understand in her own words why y she pursued the dangerous undertaking.  “During the war, the entire Polish nation was drowning but the most tragically drowning were Jews,” Sendler had written. “For that reason, helping those who were most oppressed was the need of my heart.” 

Further correspondences unlocked the other missing pieces of the story. In April 1943, Sendler was captured by the Nazis, severely beaten, and sentenced to death. However, the Polish underground bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison to release her, and she went into hiding until the war ended. Sendler subsequently married and had three children, one who had died in infancy.Ironically, her son Adam had died of a heart attack on September 23, 1999, the exact day that Mr. Conard had handed the original folder to Cambers. 

Under the “long shadow of Communism,” almost all references to the Holocaust were buried. In 1991, when the Iron Curtain fell, public recognition of the tragedy and celebration of the rescuers was stymied “by another kind of occupation,” the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Sendler’s story, like the jars with the names of the rescued children, had been buried until the high school students uncovered it.

Cunard and the three teens traveled to Washington DC in June 2000 for the national competition. Although Life in a Jar did not win a prize, the project had already taken on a life of its own. “This is way beyond National History Day,” said Dr. Cathy Gorn, Executive Director of National History Day, soon after the awards were given “You started out as students of history and you’ve become agents of history.” 

Immediately following competition, the group was invited to New York City, where they performed in front of an emotional audience of JRF board members, staff, and Holocaust survivors. “You tell a simple story,—a simple and dramatic story,” said one survivor, “that tells a simple and dramatic truth.”

When they returned to Uniontown, the group received requests to perform their play from groups throughout the United States. It was at one of their presentation that they encountered a miracle: John Shuchart, a local businessman, was so impressed with their performance that within two days he had raised the money for the group to go to Poland to perform the play in front of Sendler. 

In May 2001, the three teens and five adults flew to Warsaw.  Throughout their visit—during their numerous tours, interviews, and meetings with international press and public and private groups, Cambers, Stewart and Coons, were treated as “rock stars.” The highlight, of course, was their emotional meetings with Irena Sendler in her small Warsaw apartment. “You are our hero—our role model,” Conard said in a toast. “We will carry on your mission—your deep commitment to respect for all people. L’Chaim!”

The group made five more trips to Warsaw before Sendler passed away on May 12, 2008. In April 2008, Hallmark Hall of Fame released a movie version of Sendler’s life. Jack Mayer’s book was released in 2010 and was listed as one of the top ten Holocaust books for The Life in a Jar students continue to share her legacy through the play, the www.irenasendler.org web site, through schools and study guides, and world media. Founders and original performers.  Liz Cambers-Hutton and Sabrina Coons-Murphy still participate in the project when possible. Megan Stewart Felt works as director of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, which works with students and educators across diverse academic disciplines to develop history projects that highlight role models who demonstrate courage, compassion and respect. 

Professor Michael Glowinski, who had been rescued by Sendler when he was eight, summarized the feelings of all who had been touched by the Righteous Gentile. “Now you girls—you are rescuing Irena’s story for the world. You rescued the rescuer.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Heritage Florida Jewish News, a weekly subscription-based newspaper in Central Florida, in the September 6, 2019 issue.

10 decades of memories: Patriarch Geisler to note 100th birthday

Southern Florida, will be rocking on May 17. On that day, Morty Geisler, a veteran of World War II and a successful businessman, will be celebrating his one-hundredth birthday. Dr. Warren Geisler, a retired Albany dentist and one of his six surviving children, shared stories about his beloved father. 

Mortimer Arthur Geisler was born on May 17, 1918, in Harlem, New York,  to Maxwell and Anna Grossman Geisler, both immigrants from Poland.Eighteen months later, Maxwell died in the Great Flu Pandemic. Life was tough for the family. Geisler grew up in a two bedroom walk-up with his mother, younger brother, and grandfather. They were supported by his grandfather and Anna’s three brothers.

Geisler, however, was bright and resourceful. After graduating high school at fifteen years old, he took a job as a stock boy in a haberdasher store. He made ten dollars a week, half which went to his mother.

In 1942, Geisler married Sylvia Sheer.  A year later, he was drafted into the army, where he, like many Jewish GI’s, Geisler encountered anti-Semitism. When some “Southern boys” began picking on him, he complained to his captain. Geisler never had any problems again. 

Geisler and six thousand other soldiers were shipped over to England. The soldiers were piled ten high in bunks in the bowels of a Liberty ship, which he remembered as a “floating cork.” Geisler and his division landed on Omaha Beach on June 9, three days into what would be known as D-Day.  He then followed General Patton’s 3rd Army through St. Low to Pont de Masson relieving Bastogne and crossed the Rhein and Ruhr Rivers on the way to Magdenburg where he joined General Simpson’s 9th Army on the way to Gottinger. His division was involved in closing the pocket in Hamm where 100,000 Nazis were captured and surrendered.

In May 1945, Geisler’s division entered Dachau concentration camp two days after its liberation. “My father witnessed the ferocity of the evil that the Third Reich had created,” his son Warren, a retired dentist from Albany, New York. ”Those images are still seared into his being until this day” 

“Thousands of corpses were scattered through out the camp,” said Geisler. “Survivors, mostlyJewish, were lice infested, walking skeletons. Still in their striped uniforms, these hollow-eyed slouched over beings managed to still smile as they thanked us GI’s for saving them.”

The war was still not over for Geisler. His division advanced to Pliessen, Czechoslovakia, where they faced off on the banks of the Elbe River against Soviet forces which kept  them from invading Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later he was transferred to Paris where he met up with his brother Maxwell and his recent French bride.

In October 1945, Geisler shipped out on the Queen Mary with 14,000 other GIs back to New York City. Five days at sea with seasickness was the tour du jour. My father never missed a meal and stayed top side for four of the days at sea. Once stateside he was honorably discharged two weeks later. The war and its battles were over.

Geisler found a job as a hosiery salesman for Ma-Ro Corporation, where he became its youngest national sales manager. In 1959, Geisler and  three other salesman opened Proudfoot Hosiery. As the eventual sole owner, Geisler licensed the first National Football League’s tube sock and the first non-slip sock. His company won the licensing for the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. He eventually sold the company, working for the corporations that carried his lines. He retired at 85.

Geisler and Sylvia had four children, Steven, Warren, Edward, and Jayne.  The Geisler was active in the Jewish community and were responsible, along with other Jewish World War II veterans for the founding of Temple Beth Emeth, a conservative synagogue in Hewitt, New Jersey. “They all wanted to work and provide for their families in a religious setting safe from the hell of the war’s mass murder and genocide,” said Warren. All three sons were bar mitzvahed there. Geisler was also a member of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that provides philanthropic work for numerous causes.

Sylvia passed away in 1971. A year later, he married Enid Friedman, a widow who had three children, Iris, Daniel, and Paul. While enrolled at Princeton University, Paul, a natural athlete and president of the college’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters,  was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. After his death, the devastated parents donated a library in Paul’s name at the Israel Tennis Association(ITA) in Kyriat Shemona, Israel. 

Geisler’s experiences in the war, Sylvia’s volunteer work for the American Red Cross, and Paul’s legacy instilled in the six surviving children a sense of service and provided a cornerstone for philanthropic  work for the entire family. 

Geisler now lives in an independent living facility in Tamarac, Florida. Although he himself says he is “slowing down,” he paints (a skill he learned when he was ninety years old) and watches sports and operas. He and his 94-year-old friend Evelyn Mitchell step out often for dinner, she in her stiletto heels. “She drives; I buy,” quipped Geisler.

Seventy-three years later, however, the images Geisler encountered in Dachau continue to haunt him. “When I was growing up,  I remember tapping him on the shoulder to wake him up,” recounted Warren. “I immediately stepped back in fear as he jumped up as he were still defending himself.”  When asked to be video-taped the research department of Yad Vashem the world Holocaust memorial Jerusalem, he refused. “He still has nightmares,” said Warren, and he could not relive the horrors.

Geisler is devastated by the atmosphere of hate and intolerance seen today in the world, especially his beloved United States. “I want my children and grandchildren to understand that we are a great people, a great country,” said Geisler. “I worry how the new generation will survive all the current animosity.”

Meanwhile, the Geisler family is planning a big party later this month. His six surviving children as well the eleven grandchildren and five great grandchildren will be there to celebrate the life of what one of the surviving members of The Greatest Generation.

“Many GIs did their duty and sacrificed their lives, limbs, and even their sanity as asked by this nation,” said Warren. “May those who have died either in the war or as long-time veterans rest in peace.”

Geisler himself looks back with gratitude. “I’ve lived a long, wonderful life,” the centenarian said. ”I’ve had two wonderful marriages and seven wonderful children. I am truly blessed.” 

Happy Birthday, Morty. May you live 120 years.

Jewish World, 

Pictures are available through the following link: http://jewishworldnews.org/10-decades-of-memories-patriarch-geisler-to-note-100th-birthday/

What Makes Us the Same? Trip to Shoah Museum Inspires Writer to Find Commonality

oregon-holocaust-memorial

On a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, Larry and I visited the Holocaust Memorial. A pathway strewn with bronze sculptures of unfinished lives—a violin, a teddy bear, a torn prayer book, —brought us to a curved wall. Two columns were engraved with the brief history of the events that led to Hitler’s rise and its unfathomable consequences on Europe and the world. Plaques etched with memories from survivors are placed on a wall representing barbed wire. One read “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave;” another, “The fear has never left me.”On the back of wall were carved the names of family members of Oregonians who were lost in the Shoah. Below the names was the following statement:

Our precious life rests not on our ability to see what makes us different, one from another, but rather on our ability to recognize what makes us the same. What ultimately defines us is the moral strength to believe in our common humanity, and to act on this belief.

These words struck me especially hard on that beautiful June afternoon. Larry and I had flown out of Florida just days after the Orlando Pulse tragedy. As I stood in front of the memorial, I was overwhelmed with grief for all those lost in the Shoah.  I also thought of those innocent lives lost to another madman who could only focus on differences and destroy so many lives with another act of senseless violence.  I began to reflect on my own live  and question as to whether I had done enough to focus on “what makes us the same.”

As a child, I knew I was different from most of the people in our small upstate New York town. Along with one other family, we were eleven Jews in a Christian town, an overwhelming .5% of the population. There were a few anti-Semitic instances: A teenage boy yelling “Heil Hitler!” and giving me the Nazi salute as the six-year-old me played innocently on my front yard; “lost” invitations to parties by those my parents tagged as anti-Semites; whispered jokes about my Jewish nose that went unnoticed by my teachers. For the most part, however, the people Keeseville embraced us, shared their Christmas trimming with us; came over for matzoh brie around our formica covered kitchen table. We focused on what we have in common.

Although exposed to diversity on our family’s visits to New York City , as a student at University at Albany, and through—as always— countries and cultures explored through reading, my everyday encounters rarely took me far from my white, Judeo-Christian environment. This changed, however,  when I took a teaching position with the Capital District Educational Opportunity Center

The EOC, a  division of Hudson Valley Community College, offers tuition-free academic and workforce development opportunities to disadvantaged and educationally under-prepared New York State residents sixteen years and older. Through my interactions with staff and students, I learned to appreciate many different cultures and backgrounds and their personal struggles. A Muslim pharmacist,  after being imprisoned in her native country for giving medicine to a Christian, disguised herself as a Bedouin to flee to Egypt then to Albany. A young man had escaped with his family as one of the Vietnamese boat people. Both completed our GED and College Preparation Program and  then graduated from Hudson Valley Community College. One of my fellow instructors had overcome a troubled background in Schenectady’s inner city to graduate from the cosmetology program, open his own salon, and then come back to the EOC to instruct hundreds of cosmetology students in the technical and life skills to succeed in his chosen field.  I may have taught my students essay writing and grammar and study skills, but the people I encountered at the EOC taught me about courage and dignity and overcoming incredible obstacles. Our differences were secondary to our common goal of creating a better life for ourselves and our families. We all believed in our common humanity and acted on those beliefs. Even when I moved out of the classroom and into an administrative position, my greatest joy was meeting with students, having them share their stories with me, and promote the EOC through its many different success stories.

In the past few weeks, our country has experienced numerous tragedies that resulted from actions by those who failed to believe in the common humanity. Orlando, Florida. St. Paul, Minnesota. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dallas,Texas. The list of cities where incidents of senseless violence continues to grow.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” wrote the late Elie Wiesel, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” My protests may not take me to the streets, but it will take me to the written word, where I hope I can make a difference.

But maybe, it must start with children. When we lived in Clifton Park, our next door neighbors were an interracial couple—he a Caucasian from Massachusetts and she a Whitney Houston look-alike from Jamaica. We shared our yards and our lives with them and their four children who had inherited their mother’s brown eyes, mocha skin, and curly hair. One day, Julie and Katie, who were the same age, were shopping for matching lockets.  When we brought the jewelry up to the counter, Julie, my blue eyed, blonde haired daughter, announced to the sales clerk, “I know we look like twin sisters. We’re not. We’re just best friends.”

Best friends. Or just friends or neighbors or fellow citizens. Whatever it takes, let us all strive to recognize what makes us the same, to prevent injustice, to repair the world. Tikkun Olam. Amen.

Never Forget

How does one comprehend the unfathomable? How does one grasp how six million Jewish lives were snuffed out by a world gone mad? For me, it was through the lives of Anne and Elie and Sophie and Pavel and many others. Thanks to brilliant writers, I have experienced the Holocaust through literature.

Neither of my parents spoke of lost relatives as their families had emigrated from Russia by the early 1900s. My first in-depth exposure to the Shoah came from reading The Diary of a Young Girl.  I was thirteen years old, the same age as Anne Frank when she started her journal. While I was worrying about acne and first crushes while living in a small, upstate town, Anne was worried about having enough food and not being caught by the Nazis while hiding in an Amsterdam attic. Her words were prominently displayed on a poster on my bedroom wall throughout high school and college: “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Her journal, found after she perished in Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, remains one of my most beloved books

As a  first year high school English teacher, I was assigned to teach Police State in Literature. It was a challenging course, made even more difficult for me as I was replacing a well-loved teacher who purportedly made Brave New World  fun.

Instead, the students faced a young, idealist Jewish teacher who had been told to include in the curriculum. Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his life in the Nazi concentration camps The following June, two of my students handed me their yearbook to sign. They had drawn swastikas on my picture. Refusing to sign them, I sadly realized Wiesel’s shattering tale had not impacted them as it had me.

Anne and Elie showed me the Holocaust through teenage eyes. Sophie’s Choice forced me to see it through the eyes as a grieving parent. William Styron’s novel depicted the story of a young mother who was forced by  a camp doctor to make a heart-wrenching decision as she entered Auschwitz: She must choose which of her two children would die immediately in the gas chamber and which one would be allowed to live, albeit as a prisoner. Hoping her blue-eyed, blond-haired son had a better chance at survival, she sacrificed her daughter.  I read the book when I myself was a mother of two young children. Reading about the grief and guilt that haunted Sophie for the rest of her short, tragic  life broke my heart. Shortly after finishing the book, I woke up in the middle of the night screaming, “Don’t take Julie! Don’t take my daughter!”

Reviews of the subsequent movie were outstanding, and Meryl Streep won an academy award for her performance as Sophie. I myself have never seen the film. It was hard enough to read the book.

In 1994, a  collection of art and poetry provided a  way for me to revisit the Holocaust through the art and poetry by Jewish children who lived—and perished— in Theresienstadt concentration camp. A line in a poem by Pavel Friedman (1921-1944) provided the book’s name. “For seven weeks I’ve lived here/Penned up inside this ghetto/But I have found my people here./The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut candles in the court,/Only I never saw another butterfly.

The butterfly became my symbol of the Holocaust.Even today,  each time I see a butterfly, I am reminded me of that young man standing behind a barbed wire fence wishing for freedom. In honor of Paval and the six million, I wear a chain on my neck with two gold charms: a Jewish star and a butterfly.

In recent years, literature helped me explore the Holocaust from the perspective of those on the other side of those camp fences: people who eked out their lives in war-torn Europe during Hitler’s reign  Kristin Hannah’s novel The Nightingale followed the story of two sisters in Nazi-occupied France. The older sister Vianne desperately struggled to do whatever she could to keep herself, her daughter, and her friends—including a Jewish woman and her child—alive. The younger sister Isabelle risked her life to work for the Resistance. The description of  physical and emotional deprivation experienced by those living through the four years of Nazi oppression gave me appreciation for the brutal,often deadly, conditions that were a fact of life for everyone—Jews and non-Jews— under Nazi rule.

Through a novel written by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I came to understand how experiences encountered in death camps often haunted not only the survivors but also their children. The Speed of Light, a novel by Schenectady native Elizabeth Rosner, tells the story of two adult children whose lives were shaped by their father’s time in Auschwitz. While Paula tried to bring her father joy through her globe-trotting career as an opera singer. Julian a scientist, lived as secluded, highly structured recluse. ‘My father …carried his sadness with him, under his skin, Julien states.”It was mine now.” How the siblings moved past their father’s demons and redeem themselves was a fascinating read.

I am grateful that despite all that has already been written about the Holocaust, the topic still generates literature that gives us new ways of examining one the darkest periods in civilization. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana.  I will never fully understand the horrors endured by so many. But at least through the extensive amount of quality of literature available, I can at least hope we can learn ways to assure “Never again.”