NEW YORK, Nov. 11 (JTA) — Tuesday was a school day at the Rambam Mesivta on Long Island, but the students didn’t stay in the classrooms all day.
Shortly after noon, the 160-odd high school students piled into buses for a two-and-a-half-hour trip to protest an alleged Nazi war criminal.
Once they arrived in the suburbs north of New York City, the students stood in front of Michael Gruber’s home for two hours, holding signs that read “No SS in the U.S.” and “Honk If You Hate Nazis.”
After protesting for 20 minutes, the students prayed for those Jews killed at Sachsenhausen.
The rally is no isolated event for students at the Lawrence, N.Y., school. Members of an after-school club that focuses on Jewish activism organized the demonstration against Gruber, who is accused of participating in atrocities when he was an SS guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
“It’s hard, but it’s lot of fun. It gives you a sense that you’re doing something that’s beneficial,” said Tzvi Werblowsky, 14, a member of the club, which has about a dozen core members.
For the students, the club teaches a multileveled lesson. In addition to learning about the history of the Holocaust and the atrocities the individuals are accused of committing, they experience firsthand the judicial and political processes, from arranging a police escort to writing press releases and speaking to politicians about the event.
The activism is the brainchild of the school’s principal, Rabbi Zev Friedman. The child of Holocaust survivors, Friedman was motivated by a 1995 article in the Boston Globe about a man who had allegedly committed war crimes in Lithuania. Friedman organized his students into a protest, taking them to the Boston suburb where alleged war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis lived.
Friedman didn’t stop there. With the students, he held a rally at the Lithuanian Consulate in New York, calling on them to extradite Lileikis, who is accused of crimes when he headed the wartime Lithuanian security police. The school also held a meeting with Lithuanian officials at the consulate.
The cause gained the support of then-Rep. Charles Schumer. The Democrat from New York met with the Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, saying the Baltic nation’s refusal to extradite him was unacceptable.
In 1996, the students got their wish when Lileikis was extradited to Lithuania. Since then, a lengthy judicial process has begun. Liliekis’ trial was delayed again in September, when a judge suspended the trial, citing the poor health of Lileikis, 92.
In 1996, the students traveled to Philadelphia to protest Jonas Stelmokas, another alleged Lithuanian war criminal. But Stelmokas died before he could be extradited.
“I can’t say we get any credit for it, but I would love to believe that he had a lot of sleepless nights because of us,” Friedman said, speaking like a man on a crusade.
Since then, the students have protested several other alleged Nazis living in the United States. Last year they called for a tourism boycott of Costa Rica to protest that country’s harboring of Bodhan Koziy, who has lived in the Central American country since 1984, when he learned that he would be deported from the United States to his native Ukraine.
Nazi-hunter Eli Rosenbaum has even addressed the school, telling the students about his work with the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations.
“They do a terrific job of Holocaust education there. They do an excellent job of instilling the students with a sense of civic duty,” said Rosenbaum.
The students do much of their work on their own free time. Several students spent part of the weekend and Monday night at the school, making the posters for the protest.
“I view our high school as one that wants to teach more than book knowledge. It’s one that’s training the leaders of the Jewish community. If you want to be a leader in the Jewish community, you have to be active, you have to work through the political process,” Friedman said.
For Werblowsky, the club’s mission is also a personal one since some of his grandmother’s sister and brothers died at Auschwitz.
“Now I feel like I’ve done something to make her proud.”