SZARVAS, Hungary, June 15 (JTA) — In T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the children chowing down on kosher chicken in a brightly decorated dining hall looked like kids at any other Jewish summer camp. They clowned a little, linked arms and swayed to after-lunch songs and cheered when a teenaged girl was hoisted on a chair to celebrate her birthday. But these kids were different. The 75 boys and girls were survivors of the bloody terrorist siege and massacre last September that took the lives of more than 300 people at a school in the town of Beslan, in southern Russia. Aged 7 to 18, most of the kids had lost a brother, sister or parent in the carnage, and many had themselves suffered serious injuries during the three-day ordeal. None of them was Jewish, and few even knew anything about Jews or Judaism. But thanks to the initiative of one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, Adolf Shayevich, they were brought to Hungary this month for a week of rest and recuperation at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee International Jewish Summer Camp at Szarvas. Hosted by the JDC, they participated in a specially designed program that integrated traditional summer camp activities such as sports, arts and crafts and informal education with ongoing post-trauma therapy. “We are trying to make them feel normal again,” said Sasha Piatigorsky, program director of the Moscow Jewish Religious Community, who accompanied the children and helped coordinate their stay. “The best thing that happens is when they smile.” The children don’t want to talk about what happened during the siege, he said, but they’re still coping with its aftermath. “They behave normally and feel good, but sometimes you will see them crying for no reason,” he said. “And some of the girls don’t smile, because they lost their teeth in the attack.” The Beslan crisis erupted on Sept. 1, 2004, the first day of school, when terrorists stormed the school and took more than 1,000 people hostage, including students, parents and teachers. They wired the building with explosives, murdered some of the hostages and herded hundreds more into a gymnasium, where they were held under appalling conditions. The siege ended in a bloody shootout that left at least 330 dead, more than half of them children. The Szarvas trip was part of a broader program called Jewish Families for the Benefit of the Children of Beslan, which was initiated soon after the massacre by KEROOR, the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia. JDC’s involvement is part of its ongoing nonsectarian programs, which have included coordinating visits to Beslan by Israeli trauma specialists. “This represents a big mitzvah that we, the Jewish people, are doing not just for others, but for ourselves,” Jorge Diener, JDC country director for Hungary, said as he listened to the children singing songs after lunch in the dining hall. “It’s just amazing to me, given all the history, to hear these kids singing in Russian, in a Jewish camp, in Hungary. It makes me hopeful that we can overcome the past,” he said. Piatigorsky said arrangements for the trip to Szarvas had been underway for months. “After meeting with people in Beslan we realized that the main thing the children needed was to be in a safe place, where they can feel that there are more good people than not-so-good people in the world,” he said. “And from our point of view the best place in the world that can show kids that there is such a place and that there are people like this is Szarvas.” The largest Jewish camp in Europe, Szarvas opened in 1990 and now hosts about 2,000 children from dozens of countries each summer. Owned by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and operated by the JDC, it has developed rich programming, infrastructure and a trained professional staff. Piatigorsky himself worked for several years as a madrich, or counselor. Funding for the trip came from a variety of sources, including donations from some 250 Jewish families in Russia. Several Russian singers cut a special CD, which was sold to raise money for the trip. The children traveled to Szarvas by train — two days from Beslan to Moscow, and another two days from Moscow to Hungary. Many already had been hosted on rest-and-recovery stays by individuals or charity operations in other countries, but none had had a structured camp experience that kept them busy mentally and physically. Each day in Szarvas, the children took part in a range of activities that taught them about different cultures and countries, from Japan to Egypt to Israel. “I loved the Japanese evening,” said Marina, 14, who was sporting big hoop earrings. “I feel much safer here, and am finding many friends,” she added. “It helps me forget what happened.” Ina, 16, agreed that the week at Szarvas was helping her cope. “I wish no kid anywhere in the world would even see what we saw,” she said. “Szarvas is making me feel much more comfortable and to realize that life can go on. Here, we are not thinking about what happened there.” Rita Kusova, an adult leader who accompanied the children, agreed that the combination of physical and mental stimulation at Szarvas, and the structured programming, were extremely beneficial to the children. “It’s helping them get healthy again, not with medicine but with programs and rehabilitation,” she said. She said going back to school next fall would be a big hurdle for the kids. “This will be very, very problematic for the kids — and it will be very difficult, too, for the whole city,” she said. “Sept. 1 will be a memorial day. Two new schools have been built, and just one wall of the old school will be preserved as a memorial.” Kusova, like the children, had virtually no knowledge or contact with Jews or the Jewish world before the trip. “Now I hope that we can keep the connection and broaden it,” she said. “Because we really feel that we’ve known each other for a long time. We feel like family now and we don’t want to lose the connection.”
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Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.