Palm Beach County’s Holocaust survivors visit school, share experience

When “the bombs fell like hail” on Vilna, Poland, on that Sunday morning in June 1941, little Judith Evan Goldstein was still a few months shy of her ninth birthday.

She was headed to the river for a boat ride with her father and older brother when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against Russia. The Nazis’ first targets: Soviet-occupied cities in Poland.

Almost 74 years later, the death and destruction that rained upon Vilna remain fresh in Goldstein’s mind.

“We never got to the river,” the 82-year-old, part-time Boca Raton resident tells a rapt audience of roughly 150 fifth-graders at Port St. Lucie’s Oak Hammock K-8 School. “We barely made it home.”

With her husband Harry at her side, Goldstein recounts her two years in the Vilna ghetto and her two years in camps in Latvia, Germany and Poland. “Whenever we arrived at a new camp, we never knew if we were taking a shower or going to the gas chamber,” she says.

She asks the children if they have questions. Hands shoot into the air.

“Did you escape the Holocaust?” one asks.

“No, you could not escape the Holocaust,” Goldstein says. “We survived until the end.”

“Do you know anyone who had numbers?”

Harry Goldstein speaks up. “My sister had numbers. Anyone who worked in Auschwitz had numbers.”

“What made Auschwitz worse than the others?”

“Very few people came out,” says Harry Goldstein, who stood before Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death himself, before being sent to Austria’s Mauthausen forced-labor camp.

“How did you feel when you were free?”

Judith Goldstein: “What a wonderful feeling to walk on a sidewalk and not be watched.”

Tales of war then peace, heartbreak then hope

On this Wednesday in mid-March, similar conversations between schoolchildren and child survivors of the Holocaust are happening throughout Oak Hammock thanks to sixth-grade history teacher Belkis Madera, the 2014 St. Lucie County Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Since 2013, Madera has orchestrated visits to the school by members of Palm Beach County’s Child Survivors/Hidden Children of the Holocaust. This year, 24 eyewitnesses to the worst horrors of world history made the trip from Boynton Beach.

Last year there were 40.

Maybe they won’t need to charter a bus next time, says organizer Zelda Fuksman, a Boca Raton resident and native of Poland who hid in forests to elude the German army.

She gestures to the men and women slowly entering the school. “Look who’s walking. One just had half his foot amputated.”

No, they’re not getting any younger, but they remain eager as ever to share first-person accounts of war then peace, heartbreak then hope, deprivation then salvation.

After the survivors and their guests sign in at the front desk, Madera divides them into small groups and assigns sixth-grade “ambassadors” to act as their chaperones.

Twelve-year-old Nolan Redding, of Port St. Lucie, steps forward. He’ll act as guide for the Goldsteins and a couple of others.

“Nice to meet you,” says Nolan, a courteous, conscientious string bean of a sixth-grader with wide-open blue eyes. “If you have any questions, just consult me, and I will answer them.”

He leads the group into the school’s two-story central corridor, which the students have transformed into a small art gallery of Holocaust-themed drawings, paintings and collages spangled with Stars of David and butterflies, silhouettes of footprints and oversized teardrops.

The subjects of every work are these very VIPs, and the artists drew their inspiration from the two books that contain their stories — books published and distributed by the survivors group: “We Remember the Children” (2011) and “Childhood Lost” (2013).

Organizer Fuksman is among the books’ editors. Norman Frajman is the group’s president.

‘I never cry. I never do. But I saw this …’

By the age of 15, Frajman had survived the Warsaw ghetto, four concentration and forced-labor camps, a death march, and the loss of his parents and little sister.

He used up all his tears long ago, he says, but Madera and her students have just completed a 12-panel collage based on his memoirs, and this is too much.

“I never cry. I never do. But I saw this, and I had to use my handkerchief,” says the 85-year-old Boynton Beach resident. “Every detail of my life in the Holocaust is depicted here.”

Frajman, a gentle man who radiates compassion, is the reason Madera began this single-minded focus on the Holocaust.

The two met in 2011 at a teachers’ workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“I have to say I kind of fell in love with Norman,” says Madera. “His legacy is to make sure students do not forget the Holocaust. His mission has become my mission.”

Because the sixth-graders have read many of the survivors’ stories before they arrive, “it’s like we’re with a bunch of celebrities,” says ambassador Alexis Barnes. “We’re hanging out with them and listening to them.”

Says Emilly Mullen, also an ambassador, “First we see them in books, and then they’re here. In a book, it doesn’t give you as many details. They put emotion into it.”

Afte a spaghetti lunch donated by Olive Garden and the cutting of a huge, sprinkle-covered cake baked in the school kitchen, the survivors take the cafeteria stage in front of the entire sixth grade.

“History teachers always ask for primary sources,” Madera reminds the students. “These are our primary sources right here. This is what history is all about — and not just history but our humanity.”

Planting seeds of kindness

Goldstein repeats her story for this group, and Frajman, with the striped jacket he wore at Buchenwald hanging on the podium before him, shares his.

“You are the torch bearers of goodness, kindness and equality, and building a safe world for all,” he tells the children.

Then the microphone is handed to Fuksman, who introduces each survivor and summarizes, in a sentence or two, the long years they lived in terror.

There’s Anya Baum, of Boca Raton, who endured the six-month siege of Stalingrad.

There’s Helene Daniel, of Delray Beach, who watched her synagogue burn to the ground during Kristallnacht.

There’s Henry Rosenthal, now a Boca resident, who was saved by Quakers and would serve in the Pacific in the latter half of the war.

“We are here to honor you. We are here to cherish you,” Fuksman says. “This day isn’t for the survivors. It is your gift to yourself. … We hope that these efforts will plant a seed of kindness, goodness, peace and acceptance.”

Oak Hammock’s principal, Carmen Peterson, reiterates that lesson, reminding students of the teachers’ four expectations of them: be safe, be respectful, be responsible, be positive.

“These people were not safe,” she says. “They were the opposite of safe.

“These people were not respected. They were the opposite of respected.

“The Nazis were not responsible or positive.

“What your teachers talk about every day. There’s a reason for it. Whether it’s one person or an entire group, we have to stand up for what is right.”

She’s echoing what Goldstein told the fifth-graders earlier.

“This is my story of what evil powers can do. Now it is your turn. Don’t let evil powers triumph.”

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