Saturday, September 23, 2017

A family sits down to a Passover seder in the Warsaw Ghetto. Two young women fast on Yom Kippur in Auschwitz. A makeshift orchestra presents a symphonic concert in the Lodz Ghetto. A clandestine school. An underground library. A secret Shabbat service. A hidden diary.

Spiritual resistance—the many courageous acts of unarmed defiance by Jews intent on maintaining their dignity, their culture, their humanity and their spirit in the face of the Nazis’ relentless attempts to degrade and destroy them—was the theme of the annual Bi-Cultural Day School Yom HaShoah commemoration, held at the Stamford school, Monday morning, April 24.

The powerful, often poignant, hour-long program had many in the audience riveted. It was hard to believe that the program—from its conception to its execution—was handcrafted by of a group of young people just beginning to enter their teens.

“What’s beautiful about this commemoration is that it is 100 percent student created, directed and performed,” Bi-Cultural’s Head of School Jackie Herman told an audience that included students in grades four,five and six, as well as faculty, staff, parents and school supporters (the school’s eighth grade class watched the program by satellite from Israel, where they are currently on a month-long, school-sponsored trip).

Although it is traditional at BCDS for the seventh grade class to present the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration, Herman said, “This class of seventh-graders took this opportunity to embrace this awful time in our history and make a beautiful, moving and meaningful commemoration. They are committed to never forgetting; to standing up and being the change; to helping ensure that something as horrific as the Holocaust never happens again, anywhere.”

Standing on stage before a backdrop depicting the now-infamous entrance to Auschwitz, as well as other concentration camps, with the German words “Arbeit Macht Frei”—“Work sets you free”—set into the front gate, each student stepped forward to explain to the audience in his or her own words the focus of the program they were about to experience. As one student put it: “Today, we want to express our pride in the many acts of heroism that were not violent or physical, but were spiritual.”

To do that, the students put together a program composed of original skits, songs and dance performances; as well as two short films, a prayer and the sounding of a siren, similar to the siren sounded in Israel on Yom HaShoah, during which time the audience stood for a respectful moment of silence.

In one film, Roman Kent, survivor of a Nazi work camp, movingly explained the importance of spiritual resistance.

“I heard so many times that the Jews didn’t do anything,” said Kent. “Not true. Resistance doesn’t have to be with a gun. Resistance was a mother giving her piece of bread to her child so he could survive. People who were teaching the children in the ghetto was a resistance. In the Lodz ghetto we had an orchestra playing. Why? Because it gave the people the will to live another day and another day and another day. So there are many other forms of resistance, of spiritual resistance.

Before ending the program with the singing of Hatikvah, the students lit six candles, each one in memory of those who inspired them: those who risked their lives to protect others, who performed small acts of kindness and compassion, who kept honor and education alive, who survived to begin new lives and tell their stories. “You will not be forgotten,” said each student as he or she lit a candle.

As they filed out, visitors were notably moved by the compelling program—and “blown away,” as BCDS supporter Lorraine Kweskin put it, by the fact that the program was student-driven in its entirety and by the insight the children showed in their choice of theme.

“That [the students] could get beyond the atrocity and look at the spiritual aspects is truly amazing,” said Kweskin.

Esta Feinsod, an alumni parent and a member of the school’s Board of Incorporators agreed.

“The maturity of the seventh graders is so impressive. The fact that they were able to approach such a horrific subject with such poise and incite and spirituality is really fantastic.”

The parent of one BCDS alum and three current students—including one seventh grader—Risa Raich, was impressed with the program’s attention to detail, and its cross-disciplinary approach in that it included elements of art, writing, dance and music. She also praised the school’s administration for NOT taking charge of the program.

“It took courage for the administration to allow students to drive this program and assert their creativity and independence. It would have been so much easier for teachers and administrators to hand students a script and just have them stand on stage and say what they were instructed to say. Instead, they empowered students to create their own learning environment.”

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