A group of local students learned a lesson no book could provide about the harsh consequences of bigotry from someone who lived and almost died because of it.
The 65 New Brunswick Middle School sixth-graders — most of them African-American or Latino — as part of their study of the Holocaust had coauthored a play, Children of the Holocaust.
The work will be performed Friday, March 16, for other NBMS students at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, the culmination of a program being held for the second year through a grant from the Bank of America Foundation, said GSP director of education Jim Jack.
On March 6, the students got some additional inspiration in advance of their performance as they gathered in their school library to hear survivor Devorah Hilsenrath of Highland Park speak about her experiences during the Holocaust.
She would survive Auschwitz and escape from a death march only to find at war’s end that save for one cousin, no one else in her family had been spared. “My parents, sister, brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and all my friends from school had perished,” said Hilsenrath.
The students presented her with flowers and a book of original poems they had composed based on what they had learned.
The students in the language arts classes of Sally Johnson and Lixangel Daniel had read the book Number the Stars — about a 10-year-old caught up in the horrors of the Shoa — and each was assigned a child victim to research.
Johnson told NJJN the students collaborated on the play, with different groups working on each of its seven scenes, which, when run together, provide a timeline, beginning with Jewish life before the war and taking viewers through life in the ghettos, imprisonment in concentration camps, and fighting with resistance groups.
All the children will appear in the play, which was rehearsed under the direction of GSP staff. The young performers will all wear Children of the Holocaust T-shirts they designed.
“Before this assignment, these children had no knowledge of the Holocaust whatsoever,” said Johnson. “It has just been amazing…. These children now know enough that they could probably go out and speak to others knowledgably about the Holocaust.”
She added that she hopes the George Street Playhouse will get the grant again next year so other sixth-graders can have an equally enriching experience.
‘Always have respect’
Paul Winkler, executive director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, introduced Hilsenrath to the students and told them, “You are going to be among the last group of students who will get to hear a Holocaust survivor speak to them at school,” he said. “Because of that, you have a special responsibility to tell people what you heard and saw and felt inside.”
Hilsenrath told the youngsters about her idyllic childhood with her family in a small town in Hungary and how, when the Nazis invaded in 1944, they brought “destruction, rape, and murder.”
She said that Jewish children were forbidden to go to school and had to wear yellow stars of David. Christians were not allowed to shop at Jewish businesses.
The Jews were forced into a ghetto, where conditions were harsh. She and her family were deported to Auschwitz, forced into a crowded cattle car to travel for four days without food or water.
When they arrived at the camp the family members were forcibly separated — the last time the 12-year-old would see her parents and siblings. She was issued a uniform and her head was shaved. Each day, Hilsenrath said, she was awakened early, given little food, and made to work breaking rocks into small pieces under the menacing eyes of Nazi guards.
She was eventually taken to work in a munitions factory in Leipzig, where she drilled holes for screws in airplane wings.
One day, the Nazis accused the workers of breaking too many drills and as punishment forced them to stand for hours in the bitter cold. Hilsenrath recalled how a Nazi officer stood in front of the starving prisoners, slicing off pieces of salami for his dog.
“Believe me,” she said, “we envied the dog.”
Near war’s end, the remaining prisoners were forced on a death march — those who faltered were shot on the spot. One day, Hilsenrath and her cousin — the only other survivor from her large extended family — noticed a nearby underground shelter. That night they escaped to the shelter. They stayed there, slipping out at night to gather vegetables from a nearby field until the Russian army liberated the area.
Student Oscar Dominguez said hearing Hilsenrath’s story and learning about the horrors of the Holocaust made him “appreciate what I have.”
“You should do what you can to help people,” he said. “You should do something right for others…. You should always share and be nice to others.”
Leonardo Lugo said he would “always respect other people now no matter what.”
“I was really surprised about what happened to these people,” he said. “I will always be good to other people and will always have respect.”