Picture a room full of teenagers, uncharacteristically still, hanging on to every word spoken by an 86-year-old man, who looks easily 10 years younger, with bushy eyebrows and salt-and-pepper hair, a yarmulke perched stubbornly on his head. “How long after liberation and after the war did it take you to feel human again?” asks Alyssa Oberman, a senior at University High School. Bill Kugelman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, responds slowly, just barely audibly, in an accent laced with Old World Poland, “It was a long process. Very, very, very slow … you start scratching for life.”
This scene took place this spring during the Hebrew High School class, “A Commitment to Remember,” which paired students with Holocaust survivors in an effort to preserve the first-hand experiences of Jewish Holocaust survivors at least 100 years into the future after the Shoah, or Holocaust. The students as a group wrote and signed individual contracts promising their intention to “remember and retell the story of the Holocaust survivor I partnered with, until and beyond the year 2045.”
Under the guidance of their teacher, Sheila Wilensky, assistant editor of the Arizona Jewish Post, the students are creating true vignettes they hope will capture some of the essence of each survivor’s Holocaust experience. The students, alongside the survivors, will give a short presentation of these shared testimonies to the public at this year’s Yom Hashoah Memorial on May 1, 2 p.m., at Congregation Anshei Israel.
The survivors who have volunteered their time for this project are Lily Brull, Annique Dveirin, Walter Feiger, Rosa Freund, William Kugelman, Klara Swimmer and Wanda Wolosky. Their Holocaust experiences run the gamut from living in the Warsaw Ghetto, to the concentration and labor camps, to being hidden in plain sight by non-Jewish families. All of the survivors are members of the Tucson Holocaust Survivors group.
The student participants are Shayna Adelstein, Katherine Cornish, Jonah Grant, Sarah Hofstadter, Dara Lehrer, Alyssa Oberman, Shoham Ozeri and Abbey Roberts. Most of the students, aged 16 to 18, have traveled to Israel, Poland, or both. They come from diverse Tucson high schools.
The idea for the project was borrowed from a program presented last year at a national conference for directors of Hebrew high schools attended by Coalition for Jewish Education Director and Hebrew High Principal Sharon Glassberg. Glassberg and Bryan Davis, coordinator of youth and Holocaust education for CJE, adapted the “Adopt-a-Survivor” program presented at the conference to create “A Commitment to Remember.”
Every other week a different survivor came to class to share his or her story. On alternate weeks, the students discussed their reactions to the survivor presentations, worked on their writing, and looked for themes in the survivors’ stories. Additionally, the students met with their survivors one-on-one and attended a series of brunches with them.
“To me, as a former social studies teacher, the strong point from a process perspective is that these students are seeing the diversity of survivors,” says Wilensky. “They are learning that there is no such thing as a homogeneous group of people, whether it’s survivors, teenagers, Israelis, anybody. That to me is the beauty of this program, in addition to keeping the memory of the survivors alive.”
For most of these students, the experience has been very personal. Jonah Grant, a junior at Tucson High Magnet School, describes how he felt after interviewing his survivor one-on-one: “After I went home, I kept thinking to myself, ‘This wasn’t written in a book, he just said that to me, it was just me and him.’ It was a different experience for me and it really brought it home.”
Among the students, there is a feeling of privilege about being able to participate in this program. “The students have said to me several times, ‘I’ve never been in a room where I’ve had a chance to watch Holocaust survivors discuss and debate among themselves and each other about certain topics like anti-Semitism and racism,’” says Glassberg. Abbey Roberts, a senior at Sahuaro High School, comments on how normal, albeit inspiring, the survivors can seem. “At our brunches, it’s just fun. It’s not like you have to be serious all the time. You can talk to them. I thought it would always be gloomy and sad, but you get to talk to them about their lives after the Holocaust, and the success that they’ve had,” she says.
Ask the students to describe their survivors, and their words range from “hopeful,” “lively,” “an authority figure,” “outspoken,” “cheerful” and “opinionated” to “kshucha” (a Hebrew word which, according to Israeli student Shoham Ozeri, approximately means “fiery”). Ask the survivors to describe their student partners, and they respond “very friendly,” “knowledgeable,” “caring” and “sincere.” Although years apart, the two groups are linked by heritage, language, place and a desire to make a change in society.
The survivors, for the most, are very willing, if somewhat skeptical partners. Some question whether or not this project will impact the Jewish community at large. “I think it will make a difference to those who are involved and maybe their friends and family. Even though the Jewish community feels the pain of the Holocaust, it’s not anything that’s a part of their lives. Always the same people show up once a year, and we have that ceremony, and then they go home. But at least we make an issue of it once a year,” says Lily Brull.
The third and final brunch was punctuated by the funeral earlier that day of Irving Senor, a survivor who was initially to be included in the project. The survivors, according to Glassberg, insisted that the brunch go on as planned despite the funeral. At the brunch, Katie Cornish, a junior at Catalina Foothills High School, shares with the group that her zayde (grandfather in Yiddish), a Holocaust survivor, passed away the previous week, before she was able to speak to him about his experiences. She is heartbroken by the missed opportunity. Annique Dveirin, a survivor, points out that “sometimes survivors don’t actually tell the stories to their children and grandchildren,” underscoring the need for this type of intergenerational project.
“Part of the Nazi program of genocide was not only to eliminate Jewish people, but also to eliminate the possibility of witness,” says Davis. “This is a response to that. Not only are there witnesses, but there are generations of witnesses that are committed to preserving the history and announcing the crimes that were committed.”
Abbey Roberts sums it up: “Participating in the project gives me that responsibility that I always felt like I had, but now I have a story to tell.”
Maria Ma-Tay Russakoff is a freelance writer living in Tucson with her husband and two sons.