“It was incredibly moving” — A Catholic Teacher Experiences Yom Hashoah at the Boyar School

This is the blog that Rosie Sanalone, a middle school teacher at the independent Catholic K-12 Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, posted on the school’s website about her visit to the Boyar School in Jerusalem on April 24, 2017 — Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

24 April 2017: I had the distinct honor to spend the morning at the Boyar School in Jerusalem. I joined the students and faculty for a Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony presented by the 11th grade students who had recently traveled Poland to visit the camps to learn about the Shoah (the word in Hebrew for the Holocaust). Keren and I were greeted with a tremendous smile and warm embrace by Shoshana (her name made me smile) Becker,at right in photo, the resource development manager for the Society for Advancement of Education, which operates Boyar School in Jerusalem. As we walked through the school grounds to the theatre she told me a bit about the school, which includes grades seven through 12 with about 1,000 students. It is, as Shoshana said, the finest school in Jerusalem, if not in all of Israel. As most schools are, this school is public, and thus under the auspices of the government. I was impressed with this school and its focus on academics; for example, the principal had a six-month sabbatical to think about the best way to continue to advance the school. (That line was for you Mr. Johnson)!

From their website follows a description of the school, which “is a nonprofit organization which uses education to empower youth from disadvantaged communities in Israel to attain distinction in their social, scholastic and leadership endeavor.”

Established in 1964, Boyar is one of the most distinguished high schools in Israel, and is dedicated to cultivating excellence in the scholastic performance of the students, in their social values and in the fields of sports, culture and the arts. The school’s vibrant student body is composed of 971 highly motivated and scholastically capable teenagers from the full spectrum of Israeli society. A combination of day school students, who are mostly from Jerusalem, and boarders from outlying and developing communities in Israel’s periphery, contributes to the school’s unique learning environment. Respect for humanity, celebrating difference and pluralism are core values that guide Boyar as a learning community.

We went through the main high gates of the school and we were immediately surrounded by an energy I knew well – students between classes on their way to an assembly. I smiled at Keren, who had not been to a Yom Hashoah ceremony at a school since she was a student herself years ago, and I told her, “This, Keren, is my world!” The students, faculty, as well as Keren and I, were wearing white shirts, a sign of peace. And as I walked through this sea of students, I had a moment when yes, I missed my students at home whom I will not see for another week. But alas, I am hopeful that you have been reading, and you are hearing my voice via my words, and mostly that you, my dear students – who are so sababa – are absorbing the lessons and the messages which I am learning as I walk these roads, breathe the air, eat the food, meet the people and hear the stories … and today, indeed, was another day of positive human connection in Israel, this country I have grown to love.

We entered the theatre and sat in seats which Shoshana had saved for us, front and center. My eyes immediately focused on the closed black curtain on the stage, which had large white cloth Hebrew letters next to a red rose. I immediately asked Shoshana what the words said, and she answered: “I swore to preserve, to tell and to remember.” I immediately thought of Werner – my promise to him – and there next to that same promise written in exquisite white letters, was a red rose, Shoshana. If that was not enough of a mystical message, when Shoshana handed me the translated songs and poems that the students would be reading in English, Keren and I gasped. The first poem was Leah Goldberg’s poem, “You Will Walk in the Fields” – the exact same song Keren and I had heard yesterday just before we walked to the view the remains and stand on the 2,000 year old steps of the southern wall of the second temple. And of course, moved by yet another connection, the tears began to pool in my eyes.

And thus, with this beautiful message of walking through injustice with hope that “once more you will love again … in the way of free men,” the ceremony began at 10 a.m. sharp when each student, faculty member and guest stood in silence to prepare for two minutes of silence while the sirens wailed outside. Keren had explained to me yesterday, so that I would be prepared, that three times a year, the sirens sound throughout the country on Yom Hashoah Day, as well as two memorial days to honor soldiers. As the sirens wailed, not only in the schools, but in offices, and even on the roads across Israel, cars stopped and people stood outside their cars in silence for two minutes. (Here is a link to photos taken across Israel today: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/picoftheday/1.4039953#hero__bottom ).

As the sirens slowly fell silent, the principal approached the microphone and gave a stirring talk about the Shoah which Keren translated for me. I did not take notes, only listened, but the following words, I shall remember forever: “We stood in silence for two minutes, so that the rest of the day we could talk, and understand how not to be silent.” Her words brought to mind the many lessons of the “dangers of silence” I have heard from survivors like Elie Wiesel, which is why our eighth grade capstone project is about using our voices.

The ceremony included students reading selections from their journals which they had written when they had traveled to Poland. The readings were interspersed with the students singing beautiful songs. I have added some of the lyrics from a few of the songs (which Keren sent me later) so that I can try to relay to you how moved I was during the ceremony. Even hearing the songs in Hebrew – without knowing the words – the poise and authentic respect of the students as they read and sang combined with the haunting and powerful melodies moved me to tears.

“Yizkor” (We Shall Remember) by Abba Kovner:

Let us remember our brothers and our sisters
The homes in the cities and houses in the villages
The streets of the town that bustled like rivers
And the inn standing solitary on the way.
The old man with his etched-out features
The mother in her sweater
The girls with the plaits [braids]
And the children.
The thousands of Israel with their families
The whole Jewish people
That was brought to the laughter on the soil of Europe by the German destroyer… we shall remember the day
The day in its noon, the sun
That rose over the stake of blood
The skies that stood high and silent
We shall remember the mounds of ash
Beneath flowering parks.
Let the living remember is dead for behold they are here
Before us
Behold their eyes cast around and about.
So let us not rest
May our lives be worthy of their memory.

A group of about 15 female students sang this next song while the iconic photograph of the girl in the red coat was projected above them. It was incredibly moving. Here are a few of the lyrics:

Your smile, baby girl,
They buried in the ground
Oh how silence grows
From within the confusion
Whoever passed the trigger
Blood will stain his heart
In wars for justice
Children die too

The song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idf1Q86LPM4&sns=em

As I experienced the ceremony, I was moved and inspired by the students – the grace and poise with which they read and sang; the authentic respect of the audience; the conceptual journey of the program; and the emotional effect it had on all those present. I shared my thoughts after with Shoshana and asked her to express my impressions and gratitude to the teachers and students. Shoshana then treated Keren and me to a quick cup of coffee before we headed on our way to one of the student’s homes to hear a survivor share her story. Shoshana was so warm from the inside – a kind and welcoming smile – and told me if I needed anything to call her. I asked for a photo and Keren snapped our photo outside of the school – Shoshana and Shoshana. A beautiful moment of shared name and mission.

Keren and I drove a few minutes down the road to the home of Talia, one of the 11th grade students. Keren whispered to me as we climbed the stairs how lucky I was to have this opportunity – no one she has ever guided, unless they have family here, has had this kind of opportunity. I was again grateful to Ehud, Miriam and Keren – those people at Da’at travel who had created this trip for me based on my goals.

We were graciously welcomed by Talia’s mother as we entered the apartment, and joined by the Talia’s classmates as we filled the living room. Emily, the teacher, entered a few minutes later with Ruth Berlinger, second from right in photo, the survivor who would be sharing her story. Ruth’s father came from the Hasidic tradition, but her mother was a secular Jew who was from a family of Bohemian musicians. Thus, as Ruth said, she had the best of both worlds in her parents – books and music.

Ruth, who speaks five language, shared her story in English, and she spoke for nearly two hours about her childhood in Poland; how she was a patient of the famous physician Janusz Korczak (I nearly fell out of my chair – he is one of my heroes); the start of the war just before her birthday; her first crush who did not survive the war; the anti-Semitism she faced from her Christian classmates who had been taught such as a result of the teaching of the Church; her father having the opportunity to move the family to Palestine in 1938, but her mother refusing because she felt it was too primitive; her family’s move to the Warsaw ghetto; the disease and starvation; her grandmother dying of typhus; the day Ruth faced the Gestapo guard they had nicknamed Frankenstein – he pointed a gun at her, but decided not to shoot her; her family deciding to go into hiding just weeks before the Warsaw ghetto uprising; moving from safe house to safe house with the guiding hand of a woman in the Jewish underground; and the end of the war when her family moved to Sweden, where she lived most of her life after marrying her husband, Chlomo. They have been married 64 years, and they recently moved to Israel to be with their daughter and grandchildren; yet, they go back to Sweden during the hot Israeli summers.

I recorded her testimony, and I shall type up the transcript when I have time, but I share one more powerful memory which she shared with us. When they were in hiding, the hours and the days were very difficult as they were in a small cold room and their hosts had not given them enough blankets to keep warm. In order to distract Ruth and her sister Miriam from the cold and the sorrow, their father designed and built with them a dollhouse made of card board. Ruth described the dollhouse with incredible detail, and the admiration and love she felt for her father was quite obvious. The family gave the dollhouse as a gift to the woman (whose name I cannot remember) who had helped to hide them.  Ruth is now 85 years old, and still today as she tells the story describing the brushes with death, the choiceless choices and the losses her family faced, she became emotional and cried.

As we walked out, I told Keren I had heard many survivor testimonies over the years, and without fail, the common themes of survival had to do with the sacrifice of parents, a great deal of luck and the power of love.

As Keren said, “Love gives us something to live for.”

Keren was able to capture the moment by taking a photograph of me with Talia, her teacher Emily and with Ruth. It was a powerful two hours of the sharing of story and voice. I was so grateful to the school for allowing me to visit and share in this day. Shoshana called Keren later in the day, and asked her to express to me the following: “The school was very excited that I was there, and it was very important to the kids to see that someone is coming to visit them all the way from America.” They are going to share about my visit and post the photos I took with Shoshana and with Ruth, the survivor, to their website and Facebook page.

Without fail, when I have traveled the world – now to Germany, Poland, Rwanda and Israel – studying genocide, reconciliation and restorative justice, the people I meet are amazed that I teach at a Catholic school. I have come to learn that it is all the more important that our faculty and our students go outside the walls of The Summit Country Day School to see the world, meet its people and hear the stories. We have to shift our focus, we need a paradigm shift, both faculty and students, if we truly want to work for justice to become leaders of character who improve the world – the entire world and all of its people – we inherit. As I reflect, I think of Ben-Gurion’s goal to take the students outside of the schools to visit and to travel, so that they can learn with the dust on their feet by walking the roads, breathing the air, eating the foods, meeting the people and hearing the stories.

After our intense morning, Keren and I headed to the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market to shop the stalls and eat lunch. She brought me to her favorite restaurant in the market. We enjoyed sparkling water with pineapple juice, delicious hummus, fresh pita, warm falafel and a tangy salad all spiced with friendly dialogue at a small outdoor café table. We then perused the market stalls and I purchased some muesli and pomegranate tea from my new friend Jacob at one of the stalls. It was a beautiful afternoon.

Keren dropped me back at the hotel, and after a short rest, I headed out to be in the company of humanity and found a quaint street side café. As I entered the café, I was greeted by a vase full of exquisite white roses at the hostess stand, and was touched by the single white rose on each table. I found a table outside in the sun, and enjoyed a light dinner of bread and olive oil and tahini along with a glass of Israeli wine as I wrote tonight’s blog entry. I loved being outside writing with the life of the city around me. And as the last rays of the sun illuminated my table and the white rose, I smiled as I reflected that today had begun with a red rose on a black curtain and ended with the rays of setting sun illuminating the blooming white rose at my solitary table surrounded by the humanity of this golden city. Sababa.

CAPTION: Shoshana, the resource development manager of the Society for the Advancement of Education in Jerusalem at the Boyer School, and me standing outside the school just after the Yom Hashoah ceremony.

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