Monday, August 27, 2012

Butterflies for Hannah

Hannah Gofrit meeting with schoolchildren in Warsaw
By Richelle Budd Caplan
Director, European Department, International School for Holocaust Studies

In 1935, Hannah Gofrit was born in Biala Ravska, Poland, a town where Jews and Poles had lived and worked together for generations. She had a wonderful childhood until WWII broke out in September 1939. I Wanted to Fly Like a Butterfly provides a touching account of Hannah’s experiences as a little girl before, during and following the Holocaust. This children’s book has been translated into a number of languages, including Spanish, French and Romanian.

At the end of the book, written by Naomi Morgenstern and published by Yad Vashem, Hannah personally invites her readers to write to her. She states, “I have now told you a small part of the story that I always carry with me. I would be happy to answer your questions or hear your thoughts about my story. Please write to me in Israel. Here is my address and I look forward to hearing from you.”

Hannah has received hundreds of letters and drawings from students, as well as their teachers, from around the world.

For example, a German teacher sent Gofrit the following postcard:

“Dear Mrs. Gofrit,

It is now the third or fourth time that I read your book with my students in school. Every time the students are touched. Thank you for having written that book. It is very valuable. Shalom be with you. Sincerely, Birke Thiel.”

An Italian pupil, Francesco Busi, sent her a drawing of a butterfly with the following message:

“Ciao Hanna! I’ve enjoyed your book very much because I have learned that in life we must never surrender, even in the most dreadful situations, like the ones you experienced.”

Paulo Perneta from the Ashgreen School in the United Kingdom sent Gofrit the following moving letter,

“Dear Chana,

Miss Hagan has read us your story. I felt sad reading about your life. I thought you were brave for hiding in the pig-pen in someone else’s house. Why did you go to Israel? Do you feel happy now its over?

From this topic I have learned to never judge a book by its cover and not to commit genocide. I think no one will ever go through genocide. I will never forget this so it doesn’t happen again. I hope to hear from you soon.”

Chana Karpel, a fourth grade student of the Hebrew Academy Community School in southern Florida, wrote the following email,
“Dear Ms. Gofrit,

My Hebrew teacher, Morah Maty, read to us your book. I enjoyed the wonderful, brave adventures that you had with your family. My question is, what ever happened to the daughters of the Polish family that rescued you, Chankeh and Basha? Did you ever see them again? Thank you for publishing a Hebrew book that I could enjoy.

Love, Chana Karpel from the Hebrew Academy Community School

Ps. I like that we have the same name.”

Gofrit responded to Karpel by email, noting that Chankeh lives today in Warsaw and Basha lives in the Netherlands. She maintains continuous contact with them.

Gofrit’s story has also touched the hearts and minds of older pupils as well. For instance, a few years ago, Maria Borzecka, an educator at the Willy Brandt Bilingual German-Polish School in Warsaw, participated in an intensive teacher-training seminar designed for teachers from throughout Poland at Yad Vashem. Since then, she has maintained a close relationship with Hannah Gofrit.

After reading Gofrit’s story, Borzecka decided to visit 64 Zelzenah Street in Warsaw where Gofrit hid for two years with her mother in the apartment of the Skovroneck family who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations.

As a result, Gofrit and her family visited Borzecka’s school in the Polish capital, met with her students, answered their questions and admired their colorful art projects inspired by Hannah’s personal story.

Letter from German pupil to Hannah Gofrit
According to Gofrit, her personal relationship with Borzecka has been particularly meaningful. “As a six-year-old girl during the Shoah, I was not allowed to attend first grade together with my friends in Poland. This painful childhood experience has never left me. Visiting Maria’s school in Warsaw with my husband and son has brought me closure, and I feel as though I have come full circle. Since then, I have started to read in Polish again and speak more freely in my mother tongue.”

Gofrit’s childhood recollections have clearly inspired many students and teachers, including those educators who had aired reservations about addressing the subject of the Holocaust to primary school children.

Gofrit sincerely appreciates all of the mail that she receives from young readers in a plethora of languages. Her personal story has unquestionably left an educational legacy.

This pedagogical, age-appropriate resource, frequently modeled within the framework of teacher-training seminars organized by Yad Vashem, is now being successfully implemented in classrooms across the globe.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Excavations at Sobibor Unearth New Information

The Sobibor death camp, located in the eastern part of the Lublin province of Poland, was active from April 1942 until October 1943. After an inmate uprising in October 1943, the Germans decided to dismantle the camp, and it was left standing without any visible markers identifying its former use. Until recently, researchers relied on survivor testimonies and partial German documentation to understand the camp's structure, activity and purpose. However, the total physical destruction of the camp by the Nazis presented a challenge for all wishing to learn and understand its history. In order to reconstruct the blueprint and structure of the camp, the International Institute for Holocaust Research is supporting archeological excavations in Sobibor. Archeologist Yoram Haimi, together with his Polish counterpart, Wojciech Mazurek, have recently completed the first stage of excavations, revealing the camp's structure, part of its layout, and along the way uncovering several unique, personal artifacts.  Read more in this recent article in the Washington Post.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Informative; academically exhilarating, historically enthralling"

Last week 24 educators from the United Kingdom participated in a special seminar at the International School for Holocaust Studies.  During an intense 10 days they experienced in-depth tours of the Museums of Yad Vashem, dialogued with top Holocaust historians and educators, and met with Holocaust survivors.  Described by one participant as “Informative; academically exhilarating, historically enthralling”, seminars like these help educators gain both a greater understanding of the events of the Holocaust and also how to meaningfully transmit this chapter of history in the classroom.   

At the conclusion of the seminar one participant noted, “The Holocaust is not just a historical event - but ongoing affecting lives, societies and governments. I developed an increased understanding of the importance of evidence - without it, history would be impoverished but the pursuit of justice in the present would be almost impossible.”  

Here's a perspective from seminar participant Rosalyn McClymont, who wrote about it in the Times of Israel: 

Yad Vashem’s lesson on the Holocaust for rural England

This summer, hundreds of educators from the UK, Italy, Romania, Lithuania, Austria, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Belgium, Spain, the United States, Canada, Greece, France, Croatia, South Africa, Latin America, Portugal, Switzerland, Serbia, Ireland, Australia and Estonia participated in 10-21 day seminars at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.  Another 355 formal and informal educators from 53 different countries participated in the International Conference on Holocaust Education in the beginning of June.    

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Handcrafted Toys in a Hidden Workshop

Jakob and Jeanette de Jonge lived with their three children – Ruth, Heinrich and Joachim-Max, in the town of Weener, Germany, near the Dutch border. Already at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power, Jakob was arrested under false pretenses, the result of a complaint lodged against him by a local Nazi sympathizer, a disgruntled former customer of Jakob. When released, Jakob was forbidden to return to his hometown and the family wandered about, finally crossing the Dutch border following Kristallnacht.

The workshop in the attic. From the left: Jakob.
Behind his left shoulder is the edge of the workbench.
 Joachim-Max is holding the model plane

In August 1942, the family was ordered to report for deportation. The family immediately took action. Ruth, the eldest daughter, joined the Dutch underground as a scout. Jakob, Jeanette and the two younger boys went into hiding. A member of the underground assisted the de Jonges, finding them a hiding place in the attic of Mrs. Nooitgedagt. Her late husband had been the manager of a carpentry factory, and Mrs. Nooitgedagt brought tools and a workbench to the attic for the family to use. The de Jonges, all of whom had some technical ability, began to create various items from wood – toys, model airplanes and household goods. They gave the toys to the underground who distributed them to children that were hidden in the area. 
Wooden toy that 17-year-old Joachim-Max de Jonge
 crafted while in hiding with his family.  It is now on
display in the "No Child's Play" exhibition at
Yad Vashem 

The de Jonge family survived the Holocaust and donated to Yad Vashem some of the toys that they had crafted while in hiding, as well as the workbench at which the items were made. "These artifacts, and the moving stories that accompany them, serve as the survivor's personal testimony, and in many cases a vital lasting link to the memories of loved ones murdered during the Holocaust," said Haviva Peled-Carmeli, Director of Yad Vashem's Artifacts Department. Created during the upheaval of the Shoah, these handcrafted items are part of Yad Vashem's unique Artifacts Collections which now numbers more than 10,200 items and 14,000 museological pieces. To learn more about these special items, visit the online exhibition "Bearing Witness, Stories Behind the Artifacts in the Yad Vashem Museum collection."

The workbench and other wooden items were the gift of Rosina de Jonge-Nathans and Den Haag of the Netherlands & Jakob de Jonge of Solihull, UK.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Solidarity in the Forest – The Bielski Brothers

Made famous by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell in Edward Zwick's movie Defiance, the Bielski brothers saved some 1200 Jews in the forests of Belarus during the Holocaust.  

Naliboki, Poland, Armed partisans from the Bielski unit, 1943
 (Yad Vashem Photo Archive)
 This true and remarkable story is featured in the International School for Holocaust Studies' e-newsletter.   The article looks at the various challenges and dilemmas faced by Tuvia, Asael, Zusya and Aharon  Bielski, who, as Tuvia declared, believed, “Don’t rush to fight and die. So few of us are left, we need to save lives. It is more important to save Jews than to kill Germans."   

After their parents and other relatives were murdered in a massacre of around 5,000 Jews on December 8, 1941, the Bielski brothers fled to the Belarusian forest and set up a partisan unit with Tuvia Bielski as the commander. However, unlike other partisan groups, fighting the enemy was not their highest goal. Their primary objective was to rescue Jews and to offer them shelter and protection in the forest. The brothers did not only admit those who were able to fight, but every Jewish woman or man, no matter whether the person was young or old, healthy or sick, a fighter or a noncombatant. Tuvia Bielski explained that he “… would rather save one old Jewish woman, than kill ten German soldiers.”  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Marking 70 Years since the Deportation of Polish Jewry to the Extermination Camps

This week, Yad Vashem, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, held a special event to mark 70 years since the deportation of Polish Jews to the Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka extermination camps. Some 1.7 million Jews were murdered in these death camps; all told some 2 million Jews in the so-called Generalgouvernement, which encompassed an area including Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Radom and Lwow, were murdered in the Nazis’ “Operation Reinhard” (March 1942-November 1943).

Speaking at the event, Dr. Yitzhak Arad, Holocaust survivor, deputy chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and author of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, summarized how he, and many other leading scholars of the Shoah, understand the decisions of the Nazi leadership that led to the “Final Solution” were taken, and to the place of Operation Reinhard in those decisions. “The first decision to conduct complete large-scale mass murder related to the Jews of the Soviet Union, in July – August 1941. This preceded the German decision to murder all the Jews of Europe,” Arad explained. “The second decision created Operation Reinhard, and was taken in October 1941. Subsequently, in December, the decision was made to annihilate all the Jews of Europe, and this served as the basis for the Wansee conference of January 1942.” Although there were certainly expressions – such as Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag in January 1939 – that threatened extermination, these were not decisions or orders to carry out such a plan, but rather, an expression of intent, Arad said. He went on to describe the various elements of Operation Reinhard.
The event also included video testimony from the late Eliahu Rosenberg, a Treblinka survivor.

Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar opened the event, noting that 70 years ago the land of Poland was a man-made hell, where three generations of Jews were murdered in just over a year. Today, “as a nation and a country we are faced with many challenges,” said Sa’ar, “but we have the means to deal with these difficulties – the very means that we tragically lacked 70 years ago.” The Minister reiterated his dedication to ensuring ongoing, meaningful Holocaust education and commemoration.

In his remarks, Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, pointed out that after the murders, the Nazis tried to cover up their crimes. “Hundreds of thousands of bodies were burned; their bones crushed and the earth flattened. After locals unearthed the site in search of gold, sentries were stationed there. Trees were planted, and a farm was created. On November 4, 1943, Operation Reinhard’s chief officer reported to Himmler that notwithstanding serious obstacles, the operation had been successfully completed, and the camps dismantled. Himmler telegrammed back his thanks ‘I recognize your great achievement for the German people…’ . Tonight,” concluded Shalev, “we remember and identify with a deep rooted and multi-faceted Jewish civilization that was destroyed. As Jews, we continue their story.”

Speaking in Polish, Polish State Secretary for National Heritage Piotr Zuchowski, said it was insufficient to merely speak about the Holocaust – we must scream. “We must nurture the memory. The biggest danger is that if we don’t talk about what truly happened upon the land of Poland, fabrication and falsification will ensue…. The Holocaust must remain a warning to all humanity of what happens when people stop thinking of others as human beings.”