Saturday, February 16, 2019

Michelle Bisson, author of “Hedy’s Journey.”

Stacey Saiontz and Michelle Gewanter, co-chairs, HHREC spring luncheon.

The Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center (HHREC) Spring Luncheon, held at Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, attracted more than 100 people and focused on the important mission of how we can teach our children about the Holocaust. Millie Jasper, executive director of HHREC, explained that what we hope to do is “expose younger parents to some ideas about teaching the Holocaust and then let those ideas blossom.” Michelle Gewanter and Stacey Saiontz, event co-chairs, represent the “younger generation,”and were joined by family and friends.

Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom spoke about connecting our lessons learned from the Holocaust to teaching about human rights and other social injustices.

Jasper offered a warm welcome to a surprise guest, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, invited to the luncheon by Patti Kenner, a trustee at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. Regaling the audience with humor and insight into human behavior, Dr. Ruth spoke about children’s need to be embraced, and how love and devotion shown toward them will ultimately be paid forward to all humanity.

Saiontz, a member of the Next Generation Board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, spoke about how she had been documenting her grandfather’s story in various forms for many years. The haunting documentary, “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm,” is the story of 90-year-old Jack Feldman, Stacey’s grandfather, communicating with his 10-year-old great-grandson, Elliot, Stacey’s son. It was serendipity when, at a Holocaust Memorial Museum dinner, Saiontz was introduced to Sheila Nevins, the film’s executive producer and president of HBO Documentary Films, and Emmy- and Peabody-winning director Amy Schatz. Saiontz shared that “it has always been my life’s mission to educate young people about the Holocaust to ensure it does not happen again,” and Nevins shared this goal. Nevins asked Saiontz if she knew any Holocaust survivors and Saiontz told her about her grandfather. “Does he have a tattoo on his arm?” asked Nevins. Saiontz replied, “Yes,” and the film began to take shape.

“The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” interweaves historical footage and hand-painted animation to tell a heartbreaking story of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, sharing memories and lessons of the Holocaust with a new generation. Great-grandfather Jack is shown communicating with his grandson, Elliot, about the blueish tattoo on Feldman’s forearm: A 17606. As the film proceeds, Elliot and his great-grandfather talk about what happened long ago in Feldman’s native Poland. They sit close to one another on a sofa in Feldman’s home, their arms casually intertwined, two distant generations speaking with an intimacy that inspires hope.

“I was so moved to see their body language, the way they snuggled up with each other,” said Schatz.

When Feldman tells Elliot he doesn’t know what happened to his parents, “I never knew what happened to my mother and father. I never saw them again,” we see Elliot softly caressing his great-grandfather’s hand with love.

Gewanter, the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, is a member of Generations Forward, an HHREC workshop. Gewanter thanked Saiontz for the powerful and beautiful documentary shared with the audience. “It is inspiring to see the tenderness between your son and your grandfather. It is remarkable to hear them share the stories of survival. And it is amazing to see the possibilities for creative storytelling that exist, all the ways in which we can share stories to make an impact, both to heal and to remember.”

As part of Generations Forward, Gewanter, an attorney who lives in Scarsdale with her husband and three children, shares her paternal grandmother’s story of survival in World War II Poland, where her grandmother, Hindzia, hid from the Nazis. Gewanter’s commitment to helping Holocaust survivors led her to a position as assistant settlement counsel on the Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation—also known as the Holocaust-Swiss Bank cases.

Recently, HHREC published a book list for young readers. Gewanter explained, “Children’s books are a great way to start conversations, with individual stories, pictures and cartoons that are seemingly simple but at the same time can convey complex information and messages.” HHREC’s book list is sorted according to themes, and parents can select choices appropriate to their own children’s ages and interests.

Another HHREC member of Generations Forward, Michelle Bisson, author of “Hedy’s Journey: The True Story of a Hungarian Girl Fleeing the Holocaust,” told the story of her mother’s journey from Budapest, Hungary, to Lisbon, Portugal, during the Holocaust, which is told in her book.  

Bisson shared that she had been thinking of writing her mother’s story for at least 20 years. “But I didn’t know how to write it. It didn’t, for decades, occur to me to write it for children. And it definitely did not occur to me to write it as a picture book—all of my writing had been for adults—until I wrote ‘Hedy’s Journey.’”

For Bisson, who lives in Tarrytown, New York, the most difficult part about writing the story was “getting into my mother’s head, feeling how she must’ve felt. My mother was not an emotional woman, but when she talked about the boy who fell in the engine room and was killed I could tell that it almost broke her heart. Maybe what really made me write it [the book], and feel it was what my mother’s cousin Marika said as she got on the train: ‘I am only sorry I didn’t get more out of life while I could.’ She was 18. Every time I read that sentence I cry… No child, teen or adult should have to willingly choose death so as not to be separated from their family.”

 By Yvette Finkelstein 

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