DANVERS — When Danvers High School Principal Adam Federico decided to partner with Lappin Foundation to host a six-week Intergenerational Holocaust Symposium on Zoom, his hope was that the students and adults who attended would feel empowered to call out and fight against biased and hateful language and actions.
He more than got his wish. Based on comments during the final session on February 17, Danvers now has a community of activists ready and willing to confront hatred and ignorance. “This is unique and special,” Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation’s Executive Director, told the 73 participants. “There was a call to action and you showed up. I hope you’ll rely on each other and respond,” said Lappin, who ran the symposium.
The event was created in response to antisemitism, swastikas and racist graffiti appearing more frequently in schools and community settings. Last fall, Danvers was victim to a rash of such incidents. Students who attended all sessions will receive a Certificate of Completion and credit for nine hours’ community service.
The curriculum included curated materials, primary sources, films, survivor testimony, a book read and discussion, and a closing lecture by Dr. Chris Mauriello, Salem State University history professor and Director of its Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “Be an upstander, not a bystander,” he told the group. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I taking away from this?’”
Danvers tenth grader Norah Hass and her dad, Mike Hass, both attended and talked with each other after class, discussing the Holocaust and what is happening in Danvers and society as a whole. “Norah is forming her politics and thoughts on the world now, and I love seeing her think critically about history as well as current events,” Mike said.
“We don’t normally have conversations like that, so it was cool to see a new side of him. He would sometimes ask me how the meeting made me feel, and asked what I thought about it,” Norah added.
Listening to and interacting with survivors rendered the Holocaust and its horrors more real and left the deepest impact on most participants.
“Actually hearing survivors recount where they were during the Holocaust and how it affected their life is so much different from reading about it. These stories made me more aware of how it felt to be a Jew during the Holocaust. They need to be heard by more students, and the world,” said tenth grader Isha Patel.
“It takes the Holocaust from being a crime of epic proportions and personalizes it, a reminder that every person killed or who survived had a prior life, interacted with people in the town, and struggled through each day to get to the next,” said Mike Hass.
Coltin will expand this program to other communities. A community wide six-session online course begins March 2 and is open to any high school student, regardless of faith or town, who is interested in learning about the Holocaust. Newton South High School plans to host its own symposium this spring.
Also, she is working with Marblehead Village School to develop a professional development program for teachers and is assembling a team to train Salem High School to facilitate its own symposium. “The plan is to make it widely available to high schools and middle schools beginning in the fall of 2022,” she said.
In Danvers, all participants expressed both hopes for their community and a personal action plan to make that happen.
Danvers Chief of Police James Lovell, the father of two middle school students in Danvers, attended the symposium and said he was surprised to learn how much hate in our society is still rooted in the thoughts and beliefs of the Nazi party. He plans to engage community members in conversation about the difficult national and local issues facing them.
Principal Federico plans to expand experiences like the symposium to the greater community, with Danvers High School leading the way for more understanding and kindness.
To that end, he and Tess Wallerstein, a Jewish tenth grader, are already in the process of planning a project to help bring the lessons of the symposium to more students and adults. “It’s imperative for everyone to understand major historical events so they don’t repeat themselves,” she said. “I hope that residents of Danvers will continue to educate themselves and others about these important lessons in history.”
Dave McKenna, co-founder of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and Superintendent of Jewish Cemeteries of the North Shore, plans to continue speaking out when he sees division. “I am continually amazed at just how close beneath the surface is our ability to be divided and encouraged to hate someone else over the slightest difference of opinion, appearance, religion, belief or lifestyle,” he said.
Students Patel and Hass will stand up and encourage their peers to do the same.
“Now that I know how far racism can go, I want to make sure some of the students at my school don’t continue with their racist behavior,” Patel said. “They need to learn how harmful it is.”
“I have a job to bring awareness and act as a representative for the Jewish community at Danvers High School, especially since there are so few Jewish students,” Hass said. “I want to tell the students they aren’t alone in this fight.”
BEVERLY – Samuel Bak, the renowned international artist, speaks in a language of images, dreamscapes, and colors. A child prodigy and Holocaust survivor, Bak tells his life’s stories through canvases rich in symbol, metaphor and reorientation. Recognizable objects and figures appear shattered and reglued; a pear sports a smoke stack, broken teacups become surrealist landscapes, and a ruined house sits atop a mound of books.
Bak’s rich, thought-provoking works will soon be on view in Beverly. “Samuel Bak and the Art of Remembrance,“ an exhibition at Montserrat College of Art Gallery presented in cooperation with Pucker Gallery of Boston, brings together 37 paintings and works on paper created between the 1990s and today. The show runs Jan. 18 to March 4, with an opening reception to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
His canvases tell the story of a world destroyed, a destruction he witnessed and survived. His work references Jewish and Holocaust history, challenging historical amnesia with difficult images of those times.
Yet, he does not consider himself a “Holocaust painter,” as he is often described, and despite the fact that what he witnessed during those times is the subject of many of his paintings. “I felt I have a story to tell and I wanted to touch other people. I refer to the Holocaust because it is something I know, but it goes beyond that,” he said over Zoom from his Weston home.
His paintings are meant to make the viewer wonder what happens when the world rejects equality and focuses on dehumanizing “the Other.” “My paintings ask questions. They don’t necessarily give answers because I personally don’t have any,” he said.
Despite scenes of anguish and despair, Bak also paints survivors, imbuing them with glimmers of muted hope and resilience. Rivers still run; painters still paint. The teddy bears and tea cups and humans are put back together again, but they can never be the same as our first memories of them.
“I wanted to speak about the survivors, who are people who try to rebuild something that is similar to the reality that existed once, but cannot be totally reconstructed,” he said. “Somehow it is out of the bits and pieces of the horrors of the past that we can construct the sense of our being here and learn to prevent such horrors from happening again as much as it is possible.”
An only child, Bak was born in 1933 to an educated, middle-class family in Wilno, Poland. At age 3, he was a recognized child prodigy painter. At age 7, on the day after his first day of school, he and his family were deported to the old Jewish quarter of the city now called Vilna. At 9, he had his first exhibition, inside the Vilna ghetto. When the Russians liberated Vilna, he and his mother were among its 200 survivors from a pre-war community of between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews.
“The major subject of my paintings is: How was it possible such events happened? How is it I am still alive?” he said.
He and his mother spent from 1945 until 1948 in German displaced person camps, immigrating to Israel in 1948 when Bak was 15. After working and living in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome and Lausanne, he came to America and settled in Weston in 1993.
During his 85-year career, Bak has produced over 9,000 items. Since the 1960s, remembrance and its nuances has been a major theme.
“Memory is not a folder that is downloaded onto your computer and when you want to look at it, you give a click and the folder reopens exactly as it was before,” the 88-year-old said.
Unlike a computer folder, Bak sees the human memory as unique and individual because it also contends with our failure to remember. “We are blessed that we have the possibility to forget. This is what keeps us alive,” Bak said. It is also why, when we want to remember, we must recreate that memory.
In his paintings, Bak is “recreating the image that I have of the world in which people live today. Images that somehow seem to belong to another world attract viewers and enable me or others who speak about my work to speak of the times they represent,” he said.
His paintings have been used to educate thousands of teachers and students about the Holocaust since 1978. That year, he exhibited in a national museum in Germany that drew large groups of teachers and young students. “It suddenly opened my eyes. I thought, ‘My goodness. My paintings can do that. That’s absolutely wonderful,’” he said.
Since then, the PBS show “Facing History” has used his art for over 40 years to teach about the Holocaust, reaching millions of students in thousands of classrooms. In 2022, the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg will mount a yearlong exhibit of his paintings to commemorate its 30th anniversary.
Montserrat will sponsor a virtual artist talk with Bak and – COVID permitting – other school groups plan to visit the exhibit. “What is happening with this exhibition at Montserrat College is not something new, but it is something I know works,” Bak said.
2021 Obermayer Award winner Dr. Marion Lilienthal seeks to tell the real story, through extensive research and a hands-on approach to teaching history.
by Shelley A. Sackett
Dr. Marion Lilienthal has always taken the road less traveled. As a young schoolgirl in Kassel, at an age when most of her classmates were content to play with dolls, she became interested in the National Socialist period. Her grandparents, who opposed the Nazi Party and suffered disadvantages as a result, raised her father to be politically active and to speak up against injustice and he, in turn, raised his daughter to embrace the same values.
Although her father was a child during the war, he remembered seeing Jews led through Kassel, probably to the train for deportation. He also spoke warmly of a Jewish family he had known, always with enormous respect but also sadness about their suspected fate, leaving his young daughter with a positive image of Jews and a desire to find out what might have happened to them. It made the fate of Jews personal for her, giving a name and a life story to each.
The Holocaust was an important theme at her school and a real turning point for Dr. Lilienthal occurred in 1979 when, as a 13-year-old, she watched the Holocaust mini-series with her classmates. “It shocked me to see what people are capable of and strengthened my conviction to fight against injustice,” she says. Later, through an exhibit she created about Jews in Kassel, she became acquainted with Esther Hass, a teacher who was then head of the Jewish community in Kassel. Haas took the teenager under her wing, and the two worked on many projects together, including one at the local Jewish cemetery.
Dr. Lilienthal tried to learn as much as she could about the history of Nazi Germany, but repeatedly ran into roadblocks. “As a young person, it was very difficult to get information. There was public opposition. The archives did not answer all my questions, and people looked at you strangely when you researched there,” she recalls.
Twenty years later, in 1999, she arrived in Korbach as a high school history and computer science teacher with a specialization in the German-Jewish history of her home region, North Hesse. Since then, not only has Dr. Lilienthal distinguished herself among colleagues and students by her commitment to teaching; she has also engaged in exceptional socio-political activities with her students, young adults and community members to bring the centuries-old history of the Jews in the region back into the collective consciousness so that people can learn from mistakes of the past as they confront prejudice and anti-Semitism today.
Her impact, however, extends beyond teaching and spearheading group activities. Her work one-on-one reconnecting former Korbach residents and their descendants with the region has profoundly changed individual hearts and minds in a way that brings peace and closure. “I was able to learn about my grandparents and great-grandparents, who I could never meet, and the events that led up to my mom coming to America. The love shown to my daughter when she was invited to Korbach by Dr. Lilienthal to experience the places where my mom must have spent time is priceless,” says Renee Schindelheim. “While I have never met Dr. Lilienthal personally, she has impacted my life greatly.”
Part of Dr. Lilienthal’s motivation was a mission to correct inaccuracies she found in history books. “The Nazis wanted to destroy all Jewish life. I try to research these individual Jewish life stories to keep their memory alive,” she says. It has not always been easy.
She depends on post-war period files and interviews with local people. “I have looked for photos, gone from house to house knocking,” she says. Recently, a woman contacted her with eyewitness testimony about the fate of two Korbach brothers her father saw in Treblinkla. “She is so emotionally burdened. She wants to help,” she adds.
Today, she leads guided tours of Korbach that focus on the pre-WWII Jewish community. She invites people to walk in the footsteps of Jewish inhabitants, standing in front of a house and showing them an archival photo. She tells them what she knows about the family that used to live there and its fate. “The next time they pass this house, they have an idea of what happened there,” she says.
She first began her research 20 years ago as a newcomer in Korbach. “If people don’t know you, they don’t necessarily want to speak to you,” she says. Also, there was no interest at that time in revisiting the National Socialist period. “You had to be tough, be determined and be strong. I have received not only praise, but also hostility.”
When she mounted an exhibit about the looting of the Jews in Korbach, the mayor and city council supported her, but many Korbach residents did not. “The population is always afraid that a shadow could come over the family. Even today, there are letters and threats,” she says.
A few years ago, Dr. Lilienthal received her doctorate in “Euthanasia” under Prof. Krause-Vilmar. Her dissertation focused on Nazi era persecution of sick, disabled and “socially unadjusted” people from Korbach.
Her activities – nearly all of which have been outside her regular paid work – include: remembrance projects and publications to raise awareness of Jewish history in the region; connections to Jewish descendants from the region; a range of activities and workshops with her students and youth groups that have had a significant impact on how they see local history and the world; network building locally with like-minded people; and work with anti-racism, democracy and tolerance groups and initiatives.
She and many colleagues, including many former Obermayer Awardees, have formed a network of people and associations (such as the Arolsen Archives) from communities in the district where there used to be vibrant Jewish communities. The network sponsors events and publications that spotlight persecution and murder of the Jews while promoting coexistence of Jews and Christians in the region.
Her books and articles, which are used by libraries, history associations and other institutions, have achieved extraordinary results in combatting prejudice, as have her special public exhibitions. “Over the years, her many publications have helped people of all ages to overcome the period of forgetting, repressing and denying essential parts of our regional history. She has made a great contribution to bringing the centuries-old history of the Jews in our region back into consciousness so that people can learn for the future from the mistakes of the past,” reads a statement of support signed by Ernst u. Brigitte Klein, Karl-Heinz Stadltler, Hans-Peter Klein and Johannes Gröecke, all Obermayer awardees.
But, perhaps her most impactful work has been as a teacher, where she carries out projects with her colleagues and students that focus on Jewish life in the region.
Many former students credit Dr. Lilienthal’s hands-on approach to teaching the history of the Holocaust with sensitizing them to fight anti-democratic tendencies. “The work with Dr. Lilienthal left a lasting impact on me,” says former student Dominic Antony, who oversees the technical implementation of her projects. “Many years after my schooling, I am still involved in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism.”
Over the years, her research and documentation of the history of German-Jewish families led her to record, process and publish the life memories of contemporary witnesses. She established and maintains contact with families who have emigrated to the USA, Israel and Australia.
Ten years ago, with the help of her students, Dr. Lilienthal created an online portal so this work is accessible worldwide. “I am fearful about the future with no witnesses. I try to work as fast as possible to contact as many witnesses as possible and document what they experienced. I know it is a race against time,” she says.
The website, “Gedenkportal Korbach”, provides extensive information about Korbach and its Jewish community, Jewish families, perpetrators and victims. (gedenkportal-korbach.de). Family members who don’t know who to ask about their family history can see her genealogical work in photos and documents, enabling them to reconstruct their own family tree and learn about deportations. The site preserves the history and memory of the Jewish community that lived in Korbach for hundreds of years until the Holocaust.
She was one of the first in the region to recognize the importance of online publications, particularly for the young generation today. Her computer expertise and electronic publications have extended the reach and influence of her work far beyond the region, and made them accessible teaching materials for schools worldwide.
For Michael Dimor, of Tel Aviv, Gedenkportal Korbach was the gateway to both learning about his mother’s family roots in Korbach and also developing a deep, strong relationship with Dr. Lilienthal and her husband. He contacted her in 2011, seeking information about his family. She forwarded photos and documents and arranged a visit for Dimor and his family during the 80th memorial of Kristallnacht. They participated in several ceremonies, prayed in the old Jewish cemetery, and met with Dr. Lilienthal’s students, including Marie Fischer. “For our generation, who never saw that part of history, it is hard to imagine what terrible things happened back then,” Fischer says.
For the granddaughter (Renee Giordano) and great-granddaughter (Dr. Sara Giordano) of pre-WWII Korbach residents Toni and Siegmund Weitzenkorn, Dr. Lilienthal provided a priceless link to their family’s past and a new lens to view Germany today. Sara met her in Korbach and received information and photos of her family that would have been otherwise inaccessible, buried among troves of town documents. She brought them home to her mother, Renee, who was deeply impacted. “Because of the trauma of the war, my mother never told me much about the history of her family in Korbach. I never had a desire to ever step foot in Germany, but because of this work, I now hope to visit the place of my mom’s childhood and to meet Dr. Lilienthal,” Renee says.
Dr. Lilienthal believes her remembrance work is even more important today. “Truth makes you strong. It is much easier to deal with the truth than with an unspoken supposition. With my pupils, I talk about the structure, the motivations, why people did some things. It takes a lot of energy, but it can only strengthen them,” she says. “With all the tragedy or difficulty you encounter, you will come out stronger.”
Volker Keller grew up in a postwar Mannheim marked by a culture of forgetting. On October 22, 1940, over 2,000 Jewish residents of Mannheim were deported from the city to concentration camps in France. Only a few survived Auschwitz and other extermination camps, their next and final stop.
Yet, he was born in 1954 into a household that never discussed “wartime.” When others brought up the topic, he saw how his parents seemed to change somehow, as if they were uncomfortable. Jews were an unusual theme at this time, and whenever documentaries about the war aired on television, his parents sent him out of the room.
Although he was only a little boy, Keller knew he didn’t share his parents’ feelings of discomfort around this topic. On the contrary, he felt a spark of curiosity. The flames from that spark would ignite Keller’s passion and shape his calling for the rest of his life.
Throughout his school years, Keller paid careful attention on the rare occasions when people voiced opinions about the Nazi era. “Some said what happened was terrible, while others spoke almost lovingly about Hitler,” he says. “My interest in history came from wondering how such an injustice could have happened. But when I asked about the “Shoah”, I received evasive answers.”
He started college with a determination to learn about the Nazi era on his own. He concentrated in German studies and took courses in Yiddish language and culture and the history of Mannheim. When he began working as a journalist, he covered local historical themes. That was when he realized there was very little to read about Mannheim’s synagogues. “There were two buildings, but no one knew anything about them,” Keller says.
He decided to fill that void himself. He researched the topic and published the first of many articles in 1982, paving the road of what would become his mission and legacy — volunteering his time to single handedly create a Jewish remembrance culture in Mannheim.
From his college days to his recent retirement from his jobs as teacher and school principal (rector) , Keller has been documenting the life, rich culture and history of Mannheim Jews from its early days to its brutal end. Throughout these many decades of research and commemoration, he placed special emphasis on the relationships he developed with “Shoah” survivors and the families of the victims.
In 1986, when Mannheim first extended an invitation to native Jewish families to visit the city, Keller made sure he was able to meet them. Among the visitors were Asher and Ester Goldman Ariav, who travelled from Israel. Later, they helped him in his research for his first books, sharing photos, memories and insights. “My late parents were extremely impressed by Volker’s deep commitment and extensive efforts to commemorate the former Jewish community in Mannheim,” says their daughter, Edith Ariav-Chazan. After her parents’ deaths, she kept in touch with Keller. “I am similarly impressed by his important commemorative work, all in addition to his busy schedule as a teacher and later principal of an elementary school,” she says. The two families remain close; Keller has visited Ariav in Israel and he arranged a tour of Mannheim for her and her family in 2014.
Over more than 40 years, Keller personally met with scores of survivors and families to learn firsthand of their experience and preserve their testimony. He published five books and countless articles with the goal of documenting the Jewish community’s rich history and significant contribution. “I don’t want Judaism to be associated with the “Shoah” alone. It is a fascinating religion and culture. The general history of Mannheim cannot be separated from the history of its Jewish community,” Keller explains.
One of Keller’s first projects was to create a comprehensive record of the Jewish victims of the “Shoah” and their fate. He organized and led a youth group in the 1990s called “Searching for Traces” that scoured archives and documents for clues on Mannheim’s deportees. They painstakingly contacted survivors and family members. In 1995, the group’s findings were published in a document titled, “Suddenly They Were Gone,” and shared with the city, survivors and families of the victims.
The document had a powerful and far-reaching effect. Not only did the list permanently commemorate the victims in Mannheim by name, it also inspired and triggered the creation of the Memorial to the Jewish Victims of National Socialism in Mannheim, a stunning memorial built by the city and unveiled in 2003. Designed as a glass cube, it has over 2,000 names the Searching for Traces team discovered eternally etched in its walls.
“The Talmud says, ‘A person is only forgotten when his name is forgotten,’” Keller says. “I believe that commemoration work is extremely important. The awareness of historical and cultural issues is what makes us human. Preserving the memory of the victims of the Nazi era is critical to prevent history from being repeated.”
In the course of his extensive research, Keller came across documents that confirmed the existence of several “Jewish Houses” in Mannheim where Jews were forced to relocate in the 1930s. Essentially mini ghettos, the largest, on Grosse Merzelstrausse 7, had housed 76 residents until their deportation in 1940. Keller contacted survivors who were former residents for details and testimony and in 2003, he published an article that described the history of the house and included personal testimony by several surviving residents.
Among those Keller contacted was the Barnea (ne¢ Heilbronner) family from Israel. Uri Barnea and his late brother Daniel were born and raised in the house, and in 2012, when Keller suggested they help construct a memorial for its Jewish residents, the brothers embraced the idea. Keller led and managed the effort; he drafted the text for the memorial, negotiated with the city, and oversaw the design and construction of the memorial stele. It stands at BismarkPlatz in Mannheim, some 50 meters from where the Jewish House once stood. The stele has two glass panels, one telling the story of the house and its tenants, the other listing its 76 residents.
The inauguration ceremony in March 2014 was attended by over 100 community members and 30 members of the Barnea family, including then 85-year-old Daniel. His son, Nir Barnea, credits Keller’s efforts with helping the family transition away from avoidance of painful memories. For years, his father did not want to talk about the “Shoah” and refused to visit Mannheim. The pain was too great. “I internalized his pain and also shunned Germany. It was Keller’s compassionate approach and genuine interest in my father and uncle Uri’s experience that helped my father change his mind,” he says. Nir, too, changed his mind, and he joined the other family members who travelled to Mannheim.
In a message shared at the unveiling, he said, “The best answer we can give to the terrible years of the Nazi regime and the “Shoah” is to stand together with members of the community, in front of this memorial with a message of tolerance, peace and compassion.”
After the unveiling ceremony, Keller coordinated with the Karl Friedrich Gymnasium in Mannheim and he and Daniel Barnea gave a presentation about Daniel and Uri’s life during the Nazi era. For almost all of the teachers and students who participated, it was the first time they had met a Holocaust survivor from Mannheim.
Keller’s insatiable appetite for research next led him to another Jewish house which served as a Jewish senior home. Furnished with a Mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) and a synagogue, the house at B 7,3 boarded its elderly residents from 1939 until 1942, when they were deported to death in Auschwitz. Keller described the house, still standing and in use today, in an article, and spearheaded forming a team to devise a memorial plaque best suited to the building. He authored emotionally moving text for the plaque that included testimony of one of the residents, who took her own life rather than face deportation.
In November, 2015, Keller and Deacon Manfred Froese, a tireless advocate for tolerance and human rights who has collaborated with Keller for over two decades, unveiled the memorial in a ceremony attended by 70 people. “Volker Keller is one of the most profound experts in the field of research into the history of the Jewish community in this area. What distinguishes him is that in addition to his careful historical work, he places a clear emphasis on maintaining contact with people of the Jewish faith,” Froese says.
Schoschnana Maitek-Drzevitzky, Chairperson of the Jewish Community of Mannheim from 2011 to 2016, couldn’t agree more. “Volker Keller has become a friend to the Mannheim Jewish Community, and is close to our heart. He touches on topics few dare to deal with. His work has put the former Jewish history back into the middle of everyday life in the city,” she says.
His books, articles, tours and workshops have also left indispensable trails for future generations to follow, particularly his publications on the three hundredth anniversary of the Mannheim Klaus Synagogue (The World of Mannheim Klaus) and the Jewish Cemetery (Bet Olam- The Jewish Cemetery in Mannheim). Keller’s “Pictures of Jewish Life” and “Jewish Life in Mannheim” caught the eye of Dr. Norbert Giovannini, author and 2020 Obermayer awardee, as he started his work on Heidlelberg’s Jewish history. “The visual material that Keller has collected and saved is extraordinary. I know that such treasures can only be attained if there is a deep relationship of trust between the researchers and the people they come into contact with,” he says.
Keller’s extensive work to research and commemorate the Jewish community in Mannheim was strictly voluntary. He regularly integrated students from his elementary school (Grundschule) into his history work and involved interested community members in his remembrance projects.
“I hope my students, readers, and community learn how fragile our democratic gains are. Everything we take for granted today, human rights, freedom, protection of minorities, tolerance of others, and taking dissenters seriously, must be fought for every day,” he says.
Keller is cautiously optimistic that his work to uncover and preserve Jewish history, culture and contributions in Mannheim has affected the city’s residents. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. But I think even small contributions can have an impact on people, even if it takes a lot of time. The interest of many people is there, but you have to awaken and motivate it. Especially young people are very responsive to topics that concern the past, but also explain their situation today,” he says.
Keller offers this advice to young people today asking themselves how to best make a difference and help end prejudice and intolerance. “ I would first ask, prejudice and intolerance toward whom? Tolerance of enemies of democracy is problematic. But any racist, ideological, sexist or religious intolerance must be fought. There are so many examples of functioning plurality in past and present times. Emphasizing and reminding people of these positive role models is the task of democratic education.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Holocaust Legacy Fellow Teens with David Schaecter, Auschwitz survivor.
by Shelley A. Sackett
In April 2018, Jody Kipnis and Todd Ruderman visited Auschwitz with their dear friend David Schaecter, a 90-year-old survivor who spent over two years of his youth in this indescribable death camp. “While standing in front of David’s bunker, he turned to us and said, ‘Hear me, understand me, and let me tell my story,’” Kipnis said. By the end of their trip, she and Ruderman began to understand what their friend was asking.
“The imminent passing of survivors will occur during your and our children’s lifetimes,” Ruderman explained, noting the alarming results of a survey conducted by The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that showed the Holocaust is fading from global memory. “While no one alone can change this disturbing trend, by the conclusion of our visit, Jody and I committed ourselves to do what we could to assure this does not happen.”
The two made a pledge while standing in the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland on Yom HaShoah in April 2018. “We promised each other that the words ‘never again’ would no longer be a call to prayer, but a call to action,” Kipnis said.
When they returned home, they conceived of Holocaust Legacy Fellows (HLF), whose mission is preserving and perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust for future generations by inviting teens throughout Greater Boston to meet survivors, learn about the Holocaust and make the trip to the places that forever changed Kipnis and Ruderman’s lives. Kipnis and Ruderman are its co-directors and funders.
By coincidence, Kipnis’s daughter, Gann Academy student Gillian Pergament, was on the 2018 Y2I trip and told Lappin Foundation Executive Director Deborah Coltin about the Holocaust travel program her mom and Ruderman were interested in starting. “I said I would love to know more and asked her to tell her mom,” Coltin said. She and Kipnis connected within days of her returning from the Y2I trip and, together with Ruderman, their ideas came to fruition.
“Debbie is an expert on teen travel and engagement. With her help, we pulled this together in just three months,” Kipnis said. She and Ruderman also enlisted the assistance of the Lappin Foundation (which has run the Youth to Israel program since 1971) to administer and implement HLF, and hired Coltin as education and program development consultant.
Kipnis said HLF is in the process of becoming its own stand-alone non-profit organization.
Eligible teens for the 2018-2019 HLF pilot year needed to be juniors in high school; have participated in an organized Israel experience; be able to attend all pre- and post-trip meetings; agree to complete all homework assignments; and not have previously participated in an organized Holocaust educational trip to Poland.
As HLF Educator, Coltin, who has three decades experience teaching the Holocaust, created the curriculum, and will be one of the staff on the fully subsidized August 4-13, 2019 Poland and Berlin trip. She plans all meeting lessons, teaches the classes, and schedules survivors to speak to the teen Fellows.
“The curriculum reflects the human face of the Holocaust. The Fellows meet survivors in person, the last generation to do so. They bear witness to the Holocaust by hearing the survivors’ testimonies about their lives before, during and after the Holocaust, and what the enormous price in particular Jewish people paid for such hatred that went unchecked,” said Coltin.
The 16 inaugural Fellows represent Lynnfield, Middleton, Newburyport, Beverly, Arlington, Marblehead, Newton, Needham, Framingham and Swampscott. “I wanted the participants to be from ‘Greater Boston,’ not just one area. These kids have a responsibility to preserve and perpetuate the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. How else will we get the word out?” Kipnis said.
After attending an orientation and hearing survivor Schaecter speak last October, nominated teens wrote a paragraph describing why they wanted to be a Fellow. “In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, it is more important than ever that we continue discussing the Holocaust. I want to be part of the movement that ensures that nothing even close to it ever happens again,” wrote Dina Zeldin, a junior at Newton South High School.
“I hope to gain a new level of knowledge about the Holocaust and use that in my community, my country and someday even the world. I want to bring a sense of hope in such a dark trip,” Max Foltz, a junior at Newburyport High School, wrote.
For Coltin, the HLF trip will be her first time traveling to Poland and Berlin. While she admits that going to these sites so deeply connected to the Final Solution is “way out of my comfort zone,” she is thankful for the opportunity to open up and learn more.
“The Holocaust journey should be personal. We will be learning our history, our story. Knowing who we are as Jews puts us in the best possible position to support and promote the mission of Holocaust Legacy Fellows,” she said.
“Jody and Todd had a phenomenal idea and they followed through. Our community is truly blessed,” she added.