Symposium Wrap-Up 2014
On May 13th and 14th over 1,400 students, teachers, and adult guests attended the 26th Annual Teen Symposium on the Holocaust at Marywood University. The students, from both public and parochial schools, traveled from 30 school districts in five counties, including one school from Sullivan County, New York. Several home-schooled children and their parents also participated in the events of the day.
Planners, initially concerned with the testing window for the Keystone Tests and recent school budgets cuts, were extremely pleased with the number of participating school districts. Area superintendents, principals, and school board members made every effort to work around these important tests so their students would be able to participate in the symposium. We are humbled and extremely grateful for their outstanding support.
The Annual Teen Symposium on the Holocaust is a two-day program that has been held on the Marywood University campus since its inception in 1988. Each day different schools attend a 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. program that focuses on the Holocaust, its causes, development, and consequences. The highlight of each day is personal face-to-face meetings with survivors of the Holocaust, and one liberating soldier. Intimate groups are created rather than large venues for the students to hear the testimony of the survivors. They candidly share their experiences and follow up with a question and answer session. Each guest speaker has his/her unique story, which often encompasses memories of close family and friends. Some remained sole survivors, others were lucky to survive and be reunited with one or more surviving family members. The program provides all participants with the increasingly rare ability to hear “living history.”
Educators, who have attended in the past, feel strongly about the importance of the personal setting. It allows a closer connection and is very special for their students. Many teachers are impressed that despite private pain and great trauma, each speaker tries to impress on their young listeners the need to shy away from prejudice, bullying, labeling, and negative behavior toward their peers and other individuals. Each of the speakers truly serves as a positive role model for the young people. Each survivor built a new life after living through unimaginable hardship, and they became a contributing member of society, who shares a message of hope and light.
Each day began in the Sette LaVerghetta Center for the Performing Arts with registration and distribution of a materials kit for each student. Teachers were gifted with three Holocaust books, The Terrible Things, The World Must Know, and Tell Them We Remember, a poster for their classrooms with the quotation from Pastor Martin Nielmoller- “First they came for the Communists…” and a CD from the United States Holocaust Museum. The books were a gift made possible through the generosity of Joanne Aronsohn Monahan. In addition, blue tote bags were designed with the Federation and Symposium logo and were donated by Mr. and Mrs. James Connors for each educator. Teachers were grateful for the resources that will enrich their Holocaust curriculum.
The program itself began with a welcome by Susie Connors. She is a retired Scranton School District teacher and active member of the planning committee for HERC, who graciously served as the Master of Ceremonies for the Holocaust Symposium. Mrs. Connors proceeded to introduce Sister John Michelle Southwick, IHM of Marywood University’s Ministry, who made introductory remarks. Sister John Michelle has served as Marywood’s spokesperson for many years. Her passion for social justice, her deep respect for the survivors and liberators, and her appreciation of their “teaching us to remember” were reflected in her remarks. She showed students, through a simple exercise, how easily one could become a target of hate for any reason, even one as simple as wearing glasses or participating in sports.
Next the poignant film “Children Remember the Holocaust” was screened. It is a film that uses photographs and footage from the Holocaust years with voice-overs that are strictly words of children and teenagers taken from personal diaries and memoirs. Narrated by Keanu Reeves, the film begins with life prior to the Holocaust, and continues through the post-liberation period. In the last part, it touches on survivor guilt syndrome, how difficult it was to find and reunite family members, the hospitalization and recuperation of the ill, and the immediate vow made by many who survived to tell the story for those who did not survive. The audience was silenced by the impact of the words and images of the film.
The next presenter was Alan Moskin, a World War II combat veteran, who served in the 66th Infantry, 71st Division of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Beyond serving in heavy battles, Alan became a liberator of the Gunskirchen Concentration Camp, a sub-camp of Mathausen. Alan is particularly skilled in transporting his listeners back in time to feel and see what he is describing, whether telling stories of his war buddies or of the horrors the soldiers encountered when they entered the camp. These were, he said, unmatched by anything previously encountered in the worst of combat. He described the help these unprepared young men were able to offer. With compassion and care, they treated people who barely looked human, and credited medics with doing the greatest job. He also enumerated and stressed positive actions people can take to prevent such atrocities from occurring. His talk was extremely well received by students and was followed by many interesting questions.
Thereafter, the large group of participants were divided into smaller groups in order to meet with guest speakers in classrooms. There were fifteen separate groups daily, with students from each participating school represented in each classroom. This is carefully pre-planned so that the students can share the various testimonies with their classmates upon returning to their respective schools.The learning experience continues in their classrooms, as they connect the testimonies to historical events in social studies and historical fiction and non-fiction in their English classes.
The survivor testimony was followed by lunch and a return to the main theater for the closing event also known as the Abe Plotkin Memorial Lecture on the Holocaust and Social Justice. For the 26th Annual Symposium we are proud to present the play Lida Stein and the Righteous Gentile.
It was an outstanding 50 minute play that followed “ordinary” people from “ordinary” families caught up in the extraordinary political and social upheaval of the Nazi era. It focused on the relationship between Lida Stein, a Jewish teenage girl, and her best friend Dora Krause, a German teenage girl. Lida’s parents were forced by Nazi decrees, which were announced throughout the play by a Nazi officer, to give up their daughter to the Krause family, who agreed to hide them. Lida continued to learn her school lessons from Dora’s mother. Gradually, Dora became a staunch Hitler supporter, and became extremely racist and anti-Semitic against her once-best friend.
The play probed all of those issues from the perspective of teenagers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who were swept up in life-altering decisions about friendship, politics, and family loyalty in difficult times. The audience discussion that followed addressed two key aspects of the Holocaust era: the gradual intimidation and eventual segregation of the Jewish community from the larger society, and the characters, motivations, and consequences of the decisions of friendly and non-friendly German adults and youth. The audience discussion focused on peer pressure and its impact on decision-making, family loyalty, and personal responsibility, as well as, personal safety versus moral strength and commitment. Students, teachers, and guests were moved and impressed by the production.
The wrap-up at day’s end included a reminder to all participants to fill out evaluation forms, which are exceedingly important as a source of feedback to planners. Marywood University and the Jewish Federation were warmly thanked for their continued commitment to the program, which has reached some 17,000 young people in this area. They have been cosponsors of the Teen Symposium for twenty-six years.
Perhaps the following can provide insight into the experiences of students which they share as they return to their perspective districts. Among the guest speakers were:
Steve Berger was born and raised in Debrecin, Hungary, where he attended elementary school and Jewish Gymnasium. After the German occupation of Hungary, he was forced into the city ghetto. From there, he was sent to Strasshof Concentration Camp and then to a slave labor camp in Austria. After the liberation by Allied Forces, he briefly returned to Hungary, where he discovered the Germans and their Hungarian collaborators had murdered 26 members of his family. He joined the Zionist movement and left Hungary. He worked to help Europe and Jews emigrate to Palestine and contributed to Israel’s war for independence.
Annie Bleiberg was born in Oleszye, Poland. Soon after the Germans occupied Poland in1939, they established ghettos and forced Jews, including Annie and her family into them. When the ghetto was liquidated, the Jewish inhabitants were crammed into a train and sent to Belzec, an annihilation camp in the Lublin District in the General Gouvernement. Annie escaped from the moving train and began a brief life in hiding. She was betrayed by a classmate and ultimately was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
After the war, Annie came to the United States and settled in the Bronx.
Miriam Brysk was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1935. After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, her family escaped to the city of Lida in Belarus. They came under German rule after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and became ghetto inmates later that fall. In the ghetto massacre of May 8, 1942, most of the Jews were shot; her family was initially selected to die. Later they were spared because the Germans needed her father’s surgical skills to operate on wounded German soldiers. In the summer of 1942, Miriam was given away to a Christian woman in response to a rumor that all Jewish children would be killed. She returned to the ghetto when the rumor proved false. In November 1942, Jews in the Russian partisans rescued them from the ghetto and brought them to the Lipiczany forest. In early 1943, a partisan hospital was established in a remote part of the forest, with her father as chief of staff. To protect Miriam from rape by the Russian partisans, her hair was shaved, and she wore boy’s clothing. On her eighth birthday, she was given a pistol of her very own. They were liberated in the summer of 1944, and her father was awarded the Order of Lenin for his medical contributions. Later that year, they escaped Belarus to central Poland. Traveling as refugees, they traversed most of central Europe to flee the invading Soviets. Soldiers in the Jewish Brigade (Bricha) from Palestine brought them to Italy, where they stayed for nearly two years.
Dr. George A. Frank was born in Budapest, Hungary in April 1938. In late 1943, certain apartment houses were designated by the Hungarians to be “yellow star” buildings, where all Jews were supposed to live. His widowed Grandmother lived in such a building and George’s family moved there. In March 1944, the German army invaded Hungary and soon after ordered all the Jewish people in Budapest to wear the yellow Star of David. His father was sent to a labor camp and only returned on the weekends. Towards the summer he never returned at all.
Sonia Goldstein, was born in Vilna, Poland (now called Vilnius, it is the capital of Lithuania), a very prosperous and cultured city of about 200,000 people – about 55,000 of whom were Jews. Sonia was educated in private schools and attended an excellent high school, with plans to become a pharmacist. When the war began, Vilna became under Russian control and the family’s comfortable life changed drastically. In 1941, the Nazis occupied Vilna and all the Jews of Vilna had to endure harsh laws and restrictions along with constant fear. Sonia and her family were later forced into the Vilna ghetto, and after enduring many hardships, the family was transported to the notorious Stuthof Concentration Camp. Sonia and her mother survived the camp, but were forced on a grueling Death March.
Trudy Klein Gompers was born in Vienna, Austria in 1937. On March 12, 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria and life for her family immediately changed for the worse. Trudy’s mother was personally humiliated when members of the Nazi party demanded that she scrub the streets in preparation for a visit by Adolf Hitler. Trudy, along with her father, mother, and brother, boarded a train and left Vienna for London, England where they survived the war and later sailed to New York City in 1946.
Elly Gross (formerly Berkovits) was born in Romania. Her father perished early in the war. Elly and her remaining family, her mother and younger brother Adalbert, were taken to a ghetto in 1944 along with most other Jews in her area. Six weeks later, her family, along with thousands of other Jews, were transported via cattle cars to Auschwitz Concentration Camp where she was separated from her mother and brother. Elly credits her survival of the camp to “miracles,” noting that few others of her age group survived the ordeal. She was transferred to Fallersleben, a part of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp, where she worked as a slave laborer for Volkswagen until liberation by the Allies on April 14, 1945. Elly is a painter, a poet, and the author of four books.
Mr. Jack Gruener, originally from Krakow, Poland, is the sole survivor of his family. He began to face the Nazi terror as a child of 12, and experienced virtually every hell in the Holocaust years, including imprisonment in ten concentration camps. At Auschwitz his arm was tattooed with a number and he escaped several roundups. He asks of his listeners that they act with consideration towards each other. His story is included in the Scholastic book, “Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust.” Today Jack lives in New York with his wife Ruth and is a father of two sons and grandfather to four.
Ruth Gruener was a hidden child in Poland under extraordinary circumstances. She was hidden in a home in which the rest of the family would have turned her over to the Nazis, if they knew the mother and grandmother were hiding her in a trunk under their noses. Although she conveys clearly the fear she faced daily as a seven year old, and tells of a harrowing day of nearly being turned in, her focus is on hope and on kindness to one another.
Ruth Hartz was a four year old, hidden child during the Holocaust in southern France. During that time she had to change her name to Renee to hide her Jewish identity. In addition to being sheltered by an ordinary French farm family, she spent six months in a small Catholic convent to avoid capture by both the Vichy French Police and the Gestapo. When informants told the authorities that the nuns were hiding Jewish children, the Mother Superior was forced to lie to keep Ruth and the other children safe. Only the Mother Superior knew that the children were Jewish. The other nuns thought they were just orphans. In the days of the French Vichy Government and the Gestapo, it was anything but ordinary to rescue a Jewish child, so hers is a story of courage, goodness, and gratitude. She and her family saw to it that the rescuers were honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and she has directed and produced a DVD about them, “A Legacy of Goodness.” Her message of gratitude is eloquently expressed.
Frida Herskovits was born in Czechoslovakia and was taken to the first of three concentration camps she endured at the age of 17. After the war, like many other survivors, Frida tried to get to Palestine. However, the British who were then in control turned away the boatload of refugees and sent them to Cyprus. She eventually got to Palestine in 1948, and lived in Israel. In 1955, she came to America with her husband and son to join relatives here. Many would be bitter after such hardships, yet Frida espouses a message of friendship, kindness, and love.
Ilse Loeb was born in Vienna, Austria, and remembers having a happy life with her mother, father, and brother. But all that changed when Hitler came in 1938, and her father looked out the window and said “We are in for bad times.” Loeb’s father was right. Soon after, Loeb began to see changes in people who she had known for years. Three months later, the Nazis came and took her father’s store. Ilse Loeb remembers one day very clearly. It was 1938 and she was 13. She was standing at the train station saying goodbye to her parents for the last time. “If anyone asks you anything, tell them your mother’s dead and you don’t know where your father is.” That was one of the last pieces of advice her mother gave her before Loeb went into hiding as one of the Hidden Children of the Holocaust. Loeb’s brother managed to eventually escape to the United States. He and Ilse were the only members of the family that survived the Holocaust.
Sol Lurie lived through hell in the Kovno Ghetto starting at age 11, and survived Dachau, Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a young teen. It is because he loved his nuclear family so dearly, and he lost all of them, that he initially agreed to speak at a grandchild’s school. Since then, he travels all over the United States spreading messages of respect and love for parents, and all people. His motto is “Love, don’t hate.”
Manya Perel, was born in Radom, Poland and is a survivor. She was 15 years old at the beginning of the Holocaust and was a prisoner in four concentration camps in Poland and four more in Germany. She survived deportation to the death camp of Treblinka where the remainder of her family perished. Manya speaks of her experiences at the Annual Youth Symposium on the Holocaust in Philadelphia, and is a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.
Micha Tomkiewicz, a survivor, had the distinction of a shared classroom with his liberator, Scrantonian Walter Gantz. Tomkiewicz, who spoke on Tuesday, was one of the young children packed on a train with their mothers, traveling for most of a week with very little food and water, unaware that they were headed toward Theresienstadt. When the Germans heard that the Americans were approaching, they simply abandoned the train and took off. Gantz, a medic with the 95th Medical Battalion, traveling with the 30th Infantry Division, discovered the abandoned train. It was a train of cattle cars filled with survivors of Bergen-Belsen discovered on April 14, 1945, about a month before the end of the war. The American soldiers, who discovered the train and opened its doors saw horrors they had not encountered before -“people packed in like sardines” – and immediately called for medics to set up a field hospital and tend to the sick and dying. Young Walter was among the medics who treated these survivors for seven weeks. First, they were tended to at the train site, then in a building in a nearby town that was converted into a hospital. Each gentleman made the special effort to speak together at the Symposium. Students in this room heard their personal story from two different angles.
Mrs. Ela Weissberger, then Ela Stein, was taken to the Terezin Concentration Camp in 1942 at the age of 11. She was among the handful of children who survived. Ela performed in the children’s opera Brundibar, which was performed in Terezin 55 times. She played the cat, and was one of five or six children who were kept throughout the years. The rest of the cast, a large choir, was constantly changing as children were transported to Auschwitz. Ela was absolutely lucky to be in a children’s home, in which the great artist Friedl Dicker Brandeis worked with the children on art and poetry in order to bring some structure and joy into their lives.
Another major highlight attached to the Symposium was a moving assembly on Wednesday morning at Tunkhannock Area Middle School. Frida Herskovits, escorted by Bill Burke, spoke with over 400 attentive middle school students, who welcomed her with flowers, posters, a song, and original poems on hate and the Holocaust. After the assembly, each student presented her with a carnation. Frida was so touched that tears welled in her eyes. She then proceeded to mingle with the students, answering individual questions and sharing hugs. Special thanks to Debbie Johnson, middle school language arts teacher, and Jim Timmons, Tunkhannock Area Middle School Principal, for arranging this remarkable event.
There are many thanks due to many people:
Coordinator: Mary Ann Answini
Dedicated staff: Mark Silverberg, Dassy Ganz, and especially Mary Ann Mistysyn
Planning Committee: Katheryn Bekanich, Bill Burke, Carol Burke, Maggy Bushwick, Jerry Chazan, Phyllis Chazan, Jim Connors, Susie Connors, Steve Feuer, Dassy Ganz, Seth Gross, Jim Kane, Dr. David Malinov, Phyllis Malinov, Mary Ann Moskalczak, Gail Neldon, Marion Poveromo, Ellen Raffman, Carol Rubel, Tova Weiss and Laura Santoski.
Marywood University: Liaison Anne H. O’Neill, Office of Conferences and Special Events; Sr. John Michelle Southwick, IHM; Sr. Anne Munley, President; Vince Gatto, Information Technology Department. A very special thank you is extended to Jim Langan and Phil Gomez, the Union Employees in the Theater, Security personnel, and the Dining Services staff.
Photographer at Marywood: Carol Huff Hughes of Carol Hughes Photography
Filming Coordinator: Marion Poveromo along with Dave Chatterpaul and Jerry Palauskas from the Scranton School District, and Superintendent Billy King, for making the filming event possible.
Guest Speakers: Stephen Berger, Annie Bleiberg, Miriam Brysk, George Frank, Sonia Goldstein, Trudy Gompers, Elly Gross, Jack Gruener, Ruth Gruener, Ruth Hartz, Frida Herskovits, Ilse Loeb, Sol Lurie, Manya Perel, Micha Tomkiewicz, and Ela Weissberger, all survivors of the Holocaust, as well as, WWII veteran and medic, Walter Gantz, and Liberator Alan Moskin.
Facilitators: Katheryn Bekanich, Bill Burke, Carol Burke, Maggy Bushwick, Jim Connors, Susie Connors, Christine Eagan, Atty. David Fallk, John Farkas, Steve Feuer, Seth Gross, Santina Lonergan, Dr. David Malinov, Phyllis Malinov, Gail Neldon, Marion Poveromo, Ellen Raffman, and Anne Marie Zenie.
Volunteers: Jean Blom, Antie Kane, Georgie Kane, Jim Kane, Carol Rubel, Philip Answini, Laura Santoski and Mary Ann Moskalczak.
Facilitator Training Workshop Leader & Panel Discussion Moderator: Carol Rubel.
Driving Volunteers: Bill Burke, Nancy Ben-Dov, Dassy Ganz, Dr. David Malinov, Mary Ann Mistysyn, Emunah Kofman, Leah Laury, Neil Weinberg, and Tova Weiss.
Support: The Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council for generously funding the Abe Plotkin Memorial Lecture on the Holocaust and Social Justice; the Rosen Family Holocaust Education Fund, Joanne Aronsohn Monahan; and Jim and Susie Connors.
As always, a special thank you to all school superintendents, principals, and teachers who remain committed to this program, as well as to Marywood University and the Jewish Federation.
We sincerely hope that we’ve given thanks to the many people who made this event possible. If a name was inadvertently left out, please accept our most sincere apologies and our gratitude.