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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Middle Schoolers and Yom HaShoah: Lessons Learned

A version of this post appears on the Reform Judaism website, along with a link to a video on bullying that my class created a few weeks ago as a response to their Holocaust learning. Please visit at

A few weeks ago, in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), our religious school invited a Survivor to speak.

The man, who was well into his 80s, was charming and delightful. Dressed in a dapper blue blazer, with a layer of snow-white hair on his head and a hearing aid tucked discreetly behind one ear, he told jokes, displayed photos of his grandchildren, spoke lovingly about his wife and his long marriage, and said that in spite of all he had been through, he never wanted to be a "sad sack." In fact, he said, he had refrained from talking about his childhood for years, until a producer connected with the Spielberg project found him and admonished him for staying silent.

Even now, she told him, there are people who deny the Holocaust; for the sake of future generations, the truth had to be told.

And so he began speaking out, visiting countless communities including ours. He described being kicked out of school and facing increasing hatred; he described a hellish trip on a cattle car and a brutal separation from his family at Auschwitz; he described coming home to learn that his entire family was dead; and he said that he wanted our children to know the facts because, in his words, it could happen again.

At the end of his talk, he noticed a parent in the audience crying quietly, and he went up to her and took her hand. He told her that he wasn't sad, and she shouldn't be either. He asked her to point out her children to him, and when she did, he told her they were beautiful. Then he kissed her hand. It was an amazing moment in an remarkable afternoon.

When I saw my students again a few days later, I asked them to talk about their reactions, and they told me plainly that he had terrified them. His warning that the Holocaust could happen again echoed in their ears. They talked of nightmares after his talk. Several went around checking the locks on the doors before they could go to sleep that night, and making sure they knew where their parents were. They were confused because they didn't feel threatened in their day-to-day lives, and the possible presence of some unknown, unforeseen enemy only compounded their fear.

I knew that this lovely gentlemen would not want fear to be the overriding effect of his talk. So I asked them to consider what positive feelings his talk inspired, and what other aspects of his presentation he might have wanted them to remember.

They told me that it was inspiring that he had made a good life for himself in the United States after all he had been through.

They told me it was inspiring that he refused to be sad and didn't want others to be sad either.

They told me it was inspiring that despite the brutality he had experienced, he was still be capable of giving and receiving love, as evidenced by his happy marriage and his pride in his family.

They told me it was inspiring that he could come and share his story and his life with them.

It was one of the most thoughtful class discussions we have ever had. And I know my students will never forget the Holocaust.

I'm also sure they will never forget this unforgettable gentleman.