ORLEANS ─ It is estimated that more than six million Jews – men, women, and children – had their lives cruelly and brutally ended in the Holocaust. Pierre Boenig was almost one of them, but instead became a hidden child, saved by being moved from family to family until liberation brought freedom in 1945. On April 27, Boenig will share his experiences and insight during the annual Holocaust Memorial Service, being held at Nauset Middle School.
Sharon Leder and her husband Milton Teichman, of Brewster, have been involved with the program for nearly 20 years, and feel it is especially timely given today's political climate.
Leder and Teichman and their Jewish fellowship group Am Hayam opted to expand the memorial program into a daylong teacher's workshop, which introduced them to Angelina Chilaka, a teacher at Monomoy Regional High School, and Diane Keon and Anne Needel, both teachers in the Nauset School District.
What evolved from the workshop became an annual student-run service that features music, a candle lighting ceremony, and a keynote speaker who is either a Holocaust survivor, or the child of a survivor.
“We try to make our program student-run,” said Leder. “The classes that are involved are classes that are learning about the Holocaust during their regular curriculum. Angie's students, who participated in the Human Rights Academy were already talking about discrimination and prejudice in their classes.”
“We have a literary unit in eighth grade called Memory and Witness, with a Holocaust theme,” said Needel, who teaches at NMS. “We try to make the kids really understand the overarching context of human behavior both from the rescue end and the perpetrator.”
“We've been involved for a number of years,” said Chilaka. “I think it's a great awakening for the students. I'm hoping that they learn to become leaders that promote peace and find ways of working with people with differences, because we never want to go back to what we've been through.”
Needel said her students read an array of books, and are especially drawn to those of authors who experienced the Holocaust such as Anne Frank and Elie Weisel, who will be honored at the April 27 event.
“The kids start to learn that there are patterns of behavior that have happened and keep happening, and what can be done,” Needel said. “And having the speaker come, the kids always remember that. They take it to heart hearing someone's actual narrative.”
That narrative isn't solely confined to the memorial service. The day after, Boenig will visit Nauset Middle School and talk with students about his experiences as a means of education and awareness. Needel's students will also be placing flags at the school in honor of the 1.5 million children that lost their lives in the Holocaust.
“It essentially represents the entire population of our school over and over again, lost,” Needel said. “This is really a very important part of our curriculum, this event, because it allows us to connect what we do in the classroom back to community and witness.”
The Thursday evening program begins with a prelude performed by NMS musicians. During the candle lighting, six candles will be lit. Leder said that sometimes all six represent the six million Jews that perished in the Holocaust, or that the lighting may be done differently.
“The alternative is to light one candle for the Jews, and the remaining five to enumerate the other victims of the Nazis,” Leder said. “Because many people were targeted as inferior ethnicities and political prisoners and dissidents. We want to remember how easy it is to target people when scapegoating is used as a strategy.”
The highlight of the event will be Boenig.
“He was a hidden child,” said Leder. “He was separated from his parents, who wanted him to be separated as they felt he'd be safer that way. He was saved by being passed from family to family.”
Leder said sometimes such rescues went as well as could be hoped for such tumultuous times, while others didn't fare well at all.
“Some people can romanticize it because some people, out of a commitment to their faith principles and the goodness of their heart, welcomed children victims,” Leder said. “But sometimes it wasn't so pleasant either for children to be separated from family. They weren't always treated kindly.”
Boenig found that the arts brought him a lot of solace and shared with the memorial service committee a book of poems he wrote as a healing process, something he will focus on during his talk.
Honoring Boenig's plight as a hidden child, the theme of the 2017 event is children as refugees.
“Because Pierre's poems speak directly to how families are ripped apart, and how children then lose their center, the center of their identity, their spiritual center,” said Leder. “We felt we could extend this to the current situation of so many millions of refugees. Never since the Holocaust have we been faced with so many millions of refugees, and so many people being turned back. How can we learn from this and how can we represent a more welcoming and open response to victims of oppression?”
Both Leder and Teichman are keeping a careful watch on the political realm, concerned by acts of hatred and violence that punctuated the weeks leading up to the election. Both feel this year's memorial service is especially important.
“It means to me that the lessons of the dangers of discrimination can be made very tangible and real by looking at history and by looking at the current day,” said Leder. “When you see the faces of people who have been involved, it no longer becomes an abstraction. Discrimination and prejudice, they're words that are abstractions. But when you see someone talking about his or her personal experience, you see that this effects real people in real time.”
Leder also wants to emphasize that the atrocities of the Holocaust do not belong solely to Jews.
“I want the message to get across that it can happen to anyone,” she said. “Discrimination is really not rational. It's letting the bad impulse in human nature take over. It's so much easier to blame somebody else than to admit your own feelings of inadequacy or upset.”
“I think that its importance is that we aim it at young people who don't know very much about the Holocaust at all,” said Teichman. “We have to in some vivid and meaningful way ... through the examples of individuals who have gone through the Holocaust, who are gradually disappearing ... communicate to them the powerful lessons that can be drawn from it, and must be drawn from it, if we're not to experience this eruption of evil again.”
Teichman and Leder hope the event serves as a reminder that such tragedies impact everyone, and that people must be careful not to allow it to happen again.
“I hope that the Holocaust becomes not a Jewish tragedy, but a global issue,” said Leder. “One theme that got repeated when the war ended was 'never again.' But we see that in order for that to be 'never again' we have to keep on working. We have to be vigilant.”
“Demagogues who tell lies and appeal to fears and hatred, fear of the stranger, fear of people who are different from them, fear of minorities, [show] that this could happen again. We are vulnerable to the demagogues and therefore we have to develop the skills to resist them. The Holocaust has never been so relevant as it is during these days,” said Teichman. “One of the important themes underlying, is the assumption that the Holocaust is not just a Jewish tragedy. It's is a human tragedy. It effects everyone.”
The Holocaust Memorial Service will take place April 27 at 7 p.m. at Nauset Middle School and is open to the public at no cost.