‘Never Again!’ Teen Holocaust Legacy Fellows return from Poland and Berlin empowered and committed

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HLF teens walk the tracks to Auschwitz-Birkenau where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie.

 

Shelley A. Sackett

On August 12, Marblehead High School incoming senior Jillian Lederman was not at the beach, enjoying the North Shore summer with her friends. Instead, she stood on the grounds of Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. She saw the dusty shoes piled to the ceiling and a massive mountain of human ash. Majdanek made the stories of abuse, anti-Semitism and genocide suddenly real.

 

“It didn’t seem that any human could commit such atrocities, that the rest of the world could just sit by and let it happen,” she said. “I saw all that remained of thousands of Jews who were brutally and mercilessly murdered and it clicked. The Holocaust happened. It was real and it was terrible.”

 

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“I believe that this trip is to open our eyes and see first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive in order to counteract and spread the antithesis of spreading hatred.” -Jonah Schwartz, Framingham, Gann Academy

 

For Lederman and her 15 fellow teen travelers, their journey began in April 2018, when Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman stood in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah and promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action. The key to fulfilling their commitment, they decided, lay in creating future Jewish leaders in the community who would learn about and fully understand the Holocaust.

 

A mere 16 months later, they took a group of teens to Poland and Berlin on the first fully subsidized trip of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (a non-profit they created, funded and co-direct). The 16 HLF teens came from 10 Greater Boston cities and towns. None had previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.

 

“Our biggest challenge was knowing that nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you for a visit to Treblinka, Auschwitz and Majdanek, or to stand in Buczyna forest where 800 Jewish children were murdered in one mass grave,” Kipnis said.

 

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Victoria Veksler, Marblehead High School, and Danny Richmond, Needham High School, at the Wannsee Conference Center reading the Final Solution where, in just 83 minutes, the extermination of the Jews was drafted.

 

Participants were required to keep a journal during the trip as a means of coping with their mix of emotions and to record what they saw and heard from their tour guide, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. “Keeping the journal was extremely helpful. It served as my personal therapist during the trip,” Victoria Veksler of Marblehead said.

 

 

The itinerary started in Berlin, Germany, where the teen fellows toured Wannsee, the site where high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials discussed and coordinated implementation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. “One of the teens said to me, “I can’t understand how this could happen here. This place feels so normal,” Ruderman said.

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Alan Chak, Middleton, Masconomet Regional High School, outside the crematorium in Majdanek wondering why the world stood by while 6 million Jews were brutally murdered.

 

From Berlin, the group travelled to Warsaw, Poland where they visited the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka death camp. For most, it was their first visit to the site of a concentration camp. “I visited Treblinka and I felt a strong sense of purpose. I understand why we are here. We need to teach the Holocaust so it won’t be forgotten,” Alan Chak, of Middleton, wrote in his journal.

 

On their way to Kraków, the group toured Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where the ashes of 1.2 million human beings lie. “The things I saw there will never escape my memory. This is where I realized the true inhumanity of the Nazi officers. Even more impactful, though, was hearing the testimony of the survivors. Listening to stories of children sacrificing the little food they had so they could keep their parents alive another day broke me,” Adam Zamansky, of Marblehead, said.

 

Nonetheless, their tour guide, Sara Pellach, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, filled the teens with hope that Jewish life can be re-built. She described her family for them: four children, 18 grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and another on the way.

 

All was not doom and gloom. While in Kraków, the teens visited Oskar Schindler’s factory, where they learned about his saving the lives of 1,100 Jews despite being a Nazi himself. They also experienced Kraków Old Town, the biggest market square in Europe, and visited the JCC, which coordinates programming open to the entire community and meant to foster Polish-Jewish relations.

 

And everyone looked forward to the daily respite of creamy, delicious Polish ice cream.

 

It was Majdanek death camp, however, that most horrified the teens, according to Kipnis. Unlike Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek is completely intact, from barbed wire to barracks, from gas chambers to crematoria.

 

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2019 Holocaust Legacy Fellows outside Majdanek

 

“There were countless people who could see the smoke from the crematorium, and others who saw Jews walking the 4km from the train station to the camp. They said nothing about it, pretending as if nothing were wrong at all. I thought a lot about all those bystanders,” Danny Richmond, of Needham, said.

 

Every night of the 10-day trip, group dialogue and role playing helped the teens transition back to everyday life. “The biggest reward for the teens in our opinion were the engagement and interpersonal relationships that formed. Their nightly discussions could have gone on for hours had we let them,” Kipnis added.

 

The HLF program did not begin or end in Germany and Poland. In preparation, teens attended mandatory educational meetings and met and heard from Holocaust survivors firsthand. Now that they have returned, they have to: write a post-trip reflection of their experience; prepare and deliver a presentation on the memory and lessons of the Holocaust; participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Service; pledge to transmit the lessons and memories of the Holocaust to future generations, and serve on the Holocaust Speakers Bureau.

 

“Holocaust Legacy Fellows was designed to create an empowered community of critical thinkers who will illuminate the world with hope, respect and responsibility. This alone sets our Holocaust education program apart from any other,” Kipnis said.

 

The HLF capstone is a graduation ceremony on September 8th at 4pm at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe columnist, will be the keynote speaker and the teens will read their reflection essays.

 

Kipnis and Ruderman’s goal of inspiring the 16 HLF graduates to take on the mantle of leadership and inform their communities about the Holocaust seems to have hit its mark.

 

“This trip changed my life in so many ways and has given me an important purpose in life. The post trip assignments do not feel like a burden. They are an opportunity for me to fulfill a deep desire to educate others and advocate on behalf of myself, HLF and the Jewish people,” Max Foltz, of Newburyport, said.

 

The trip was also transformative in intangible but indelible ways. “We saw first-hand what deep rooted hatred in people can do. This is to teach us to be compassionate and sensitive and to counteract and spread the antithesis of hatred,” Jonah Schwartz, of Framingham, said.

 

“For the first time, I truly thought of the Jewish people as my people,” Katie Hubbard, of Arlington, added.

 

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Gloucester Stage’s ‘Ben Butler’ Is Much More Than A Historical Comedy

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson. All Photos by Jason Grow.

By Shelley A. Sackett

On May 23, 1861, smack in the middle of the Civil War, the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United States. The next day, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union-held Fort Monroe, VA, finds himself in an unusual moral and legal pickle. Three escaped slaves have showed up at the fort’s doorstep seeking sanctuary. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, settled federal law since its 1850 enactment, General Butler is required to return them to their owner.

Yet Butler wears more than just his military hat. A silver-tongued lawyer with a reputation as a champion of labor, abolition and naturalized citizens, he is reticent to follow the letter of the law and send the slaves back to the Confederacy. Are they not, after all, people seeking asylum from an oppressive regime? For Butler, this goes way beyond issues of legal or military might; it is a matter that goes straight to the core of who he is (or, is not) as a moral human being. At the same time, he is understandably reticent to rock the boat and sink his own career. Even scarier yet is the idea of leaving his fingerprints all over an incident that could affect the outcome of the war.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

The complicated matter becomes even more so when Butler actually meets Shepard Mallory, the slave who has demanded an audience to plead his case in person. Despite the stark black and white differences in their skin, station and status, the two soon realize they have more in common than not.

Both are expert verbal sparrers, and recognize in the other a familiar spunk and intellect. Both are, at their core, compassionate and humanistic. And bought are caught in the razor-sharp teeth of the cog that fuels the madness that has torn the United States in two.

If this sounds like the stuff of a heart-wrenching, angst-laden script, think again, for playwright Richard Strand has turned the tragic on its head. His lively comedy drives home all the important messages – that slavery is evil, that all humans are created as equals, and that war is bad, for starters – but clothes them in clever repartees and endless rounds of (mostly) delightful verbal gymnastics.

For it turns out that Shepard Mallory is no ordinary man. The runaway slave is literate, literary and able to run legal circles around General Butler who, in truth, is much more of a lawyer than military man. As they joust and brawl, they are shocked and then delighted to discover that they have each finally met their match.

 

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L to R: Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor

 

And this is where Strand’s script – flawed and bloated though it is – is both brilliant and brave. As Butler and Mallory get to know each other, the world’s artifice that separates them melts away. They become kindred spirits, united in their revulsion at the perversity that is at the rotten core of slavery. Strand shows the audience what “all men are created equal” really looks like. This is infinitely more effective and more powerful than a chest-beating diatribe against racism could ever be.

A fast-paced comedy about slavery is dependent on the caliber of its actors, and the Gloucester Stage production rises to the occasion. As Butler, Ames Adamson (who originated the role at the New Jersey Repertory Company and again Off-Broadway at 59E59TH Theatre) is clearly having the time of his life, practically chewing the scenery. He is the eye of the storm and both the audience and his cast mates know it. Shane Taylor holds his own as Mallory, delicately walking a fine line between enlightened erudition and bondage. And Doug Bowen-Flynn, as the by-the-book West Point graduate Lieutenant Kelly, is a perfect foil for Butler’s more nuanced version of life. His transformation from knee-jerk bigot to color blind humanist is masterfully graceful and poignant.

 

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L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

Some might chafe at the idea of a subject as serious as slavery being handled with a light comedic touch, and in another playwright’s hands, they might be right. In the case of ‘Ben Butler,’ however, Richard Strand has brought home the very serious point that racism is evil and immoral, and let us have a jolly good time nonetheless.

‘Ben Butler’ –Written by Richard Strand; Directed by Joseph Discher; Scenic Design by Greg Trochlil; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Sound Design by Joseph Discher. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through August 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://gloucesterstage.com/