As part of a Historical Fiction unit, 5th graders in Westfield Public Schools read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, a historical fiction novel that follows a friendship between a Jewish girl and a Christian girl in Copenhagen and their journey to freedom during World War II. And, at schools across the district, there continue to be presentations on the Holocaust that provide important real life context to these classroom experiences.
McKinley 5th graders welcomed Holocaust survivor Sally Frishberg on March 21. Born in Poland in 1934, Frishberg shared her experiences as a young child whose family was forced to flee their home in Poland when the Nazis invaded their village. She and her family were taken in by a Polish farmer and hidden in his attic for two years. After the war ended, the family eventually immigrated to America. Frishberg, a former high school teacher, was awarded the Yavner Award for Excellence in Holocaust Education in 2005 and now is a regular speaker in schools. A mother and grandmother, she brings a message of hope and strength to her audiences.
“It’s important that when students are ready they learn about the most difficult aspects of our history and that they learn them in ways that are appropriate for their developmental age,” says McKinley principal Dr. Marc Biunno. “Ms. Frishberg’s story, while sad, is also one about hope and that, even in the face of the greatest evil, there is also good.”
On April 1, through Living Voices, a Seattle, Washington-based organization that “combines dynamic solo performances with archival film and sound,” Franklin 5th graders listened as actor Elizabeth Rainer performed “Through the Eyes of a Friend” which is told from the viewpoint of a fictional “best friend” of Anne Frank. Sitting on a single stool, Rainer voiced the story of the fictional Sarah Weiss who becomes friends with Anne Frank, whose own real life story became known to the world after World War II through the writings in her diary.
Through Rainer’s accomplished storytelling and historical photographs and footage, the 5th grade audience received a compelling account of the pain, loss, and hope experienced by the two girls as they are sent first to Westerbork prison camp, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen where Anne and her sister, Margot, died from typhoid. Their mother, Edith Frank, died in Auschwitz; their father, Otto Frank, survived.
According to the Living Voices website, “Sarah” is “a composite character inspired by the experiences and testimonies of many individuals who knew Anne Frank at certain points in her life as well as those young people who experienced the Holocaust throughout Europe. ‘Through the Eyes of a Friend’ remains faithful to Anne Frank’s life and her world.”
“This experience for our students helps transport them to a time in history that can be hard for them to fully grasp. Teachers work diligently to provide the needed context for such a powerful performance through texts and discussions,” says Franklin principal Dr. Eileen Cambria. “Nonfiction texts can give students the important facts and historical fiction, like Number the Stars, can help them gain insight into how the events of WWII and the Holocaust unfolded. Through these classroom experiences, they begin to understand the devastating impact these events had--and the great bravery displayed by those who were fleeing evil and those who were part of the resistance movements across Europe.”
Cambria says the Living Voices performance “further deepens their understanding in such a moving and powerful way that only a dramatic performance can. It helps them begin to develop a better understanding of the depth of this tragedy and fosters empathy towards others.”
“Together, these experiences we are giving them will help them become adults who will not only recognize evil and injustice in the world but become people who have the determination and the courage needed to stand up against it,” Cambria adds. “It is important for them to understand the Holocaust and understand what it means when people say ‘Never again’.”
In recent months, 8th graders at Edison Intermediate School heard from Holocaust survivor Judith Reifer and from six members of the Second/Third Generation Holocaust Survivors Group from Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. Tamaques 5th grade teacher Marisa Truselo is partnering with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest to arrange a visit from a Holocaust survivor on May 31.
“These powerful, age-appropriate presentations enhance our Holocaust Education curriculum and help our students better understand this historical event,” says Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan. “We are grateful to those who share their stories with our school community, reinforcing the common message that hate cannot and will not be tolerated anywhere.”