When Stephanie Shack was growing up in Springfield, one of her most memorable classes was when a teacher invited a survivor from the Titanic to come speak at her school.
Now 29 and a teacher at that same school, the Florence M. Gaudineer Middle School, Shack decided to follow that example in teaching about the Holocaust: She wanted her students to hear from a living witness.
“No background information can compare with the impact of what a survivor can tell them,” she told NJ Jewish News, “and in a few more years, we won’t have this privilege.”
With the stringent security regulations laid down by the state Department of Education, bringing an outsider to speak at a school has become a complex bureaucratic process, but Shack was determined. And when it came to finding the right speaker, she had help: Jessica Mehlman, the mother of one of her students, works for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and has extensive contact with the local survivor community.
Mehlman, the federation’s assistant director of financial resource development, arranged for Clara Kramer, cofounder of the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University and one of the best-known Holocaust educators in the area, to come speak to Shack’s seventh-grade communications arts students on Jan. 6.
The students met in the library. With seating limited, Kramer — now in her mid-80s and recently widowed — agreed to meet with two groups, one after the other. She told Shack she would rather tell her story twice to such youngsters “with just a breath in between” than address a whole stadium of less-interested adults. Though she sat to take questions, she insisted on standing throughout the two talks.
And when it was over, as Shack put it, they “played the thank-you game,” with Kramer insisting she was the one who owed gratitude — for the chance to pass on awareness of the Holocaust to the next generation.
That has been Kramer’s driving passion ever since she and her family survived the Nazi invasion of Poland. She had a happy childhood in Zolkiew, she told the students, growing up in a large extended family and with reasonably harmonious relations with their Christian neighbors. That made it all the more horrifying when, after the family went into hiding, a schoolmate betrayed her sister to the police. Manya was killed, and the boy got four kilograms of sugar for turning her in. “That’s how cheap Jewish life was,” Kramer said.
But it was also one of their neighbors, “Mr. Beck,” a German national, and his family, who sheltered her and her parents and other families — 18 people — for almost two years, in the crawl space under his home. The Becks provided them with food and safety, even as Nazi soldiers occupied the house over their heads.
Of their community of 5,000 Jews, only 64 were left alive after the war. They were surrounded by tragedy and loss. As for her family’s survival, “The human species is very strong,” she said. They faced severe hardship, living five families to one room in a displaced persons camp, but “we had come straight from hell, so it didn’t matter,” she said. “We were free.”
The diary that Kramer wrote during her years in hiding was turned into a book and published in 2009, Clara’s War, and has sold around the world.
One of the students asked afterward if Beck had survived the war. He did so with difficulty, Kramer related, but his daughter and her children and grandchildren have been lifelong friends with Kramer’s family, celebrating an unbreakable bond of gratitude.
Shack was delighted. Kramer had conveyed just what she wanted her students to learn, she said: “Bad things happen when you don’t get to know your neighbor,” and compassion and respect can prevail across differences of religion and ethnicity.
Only half of her seventh-grade students were able to hear Kramer because of timing and logistics, but Shack said that she hopes to be able to organize another such encounter next year. “As a teacher, what matters is the take-away I can give my students, and this is the kind of experience they’ll remember,” she said.