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U.S. Students Discover Holocaust Through Short Stories of Polish Shtetl

April 26, 2006
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Luboml was a shtetl in Poland. People worked there, had families, went to synagogue, fell in love, even ate ice cream. Its inhabitants were among the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Now imagine that shtetl coming to life again, in the hearts and minds of teenagers at a Florida high school.

Since February, some 600 students at Lake Worth High School — mostly of Haitian and Latino background — have been reading and writing about Luboml, creating woodcuts, baking challah, building a memorial and making bracelets with a bead for each lost family.

On May 10, the students will plant a tree in memory of the Jews of this shtetl and for the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust. It will stand near some palms in a courtyard of their sprawling campus.

It started as an idea of reading teacher Abbe Snyder, who wanted to do a new Holocaust education project this year.

Rochel and George Berman, who head the Florida Chapter of the American Society for Yad Vashem, recommended the English edition of the Luboml Yizkor Buch, or memorial book, which is filled with short stories about the life and death of the shtetl, all told by eyewitnesses.

The book, written by survivors and others who had emigrated before the war, is “absolutely poetic,” Berman said. “It was a dreamy sort of recollection of how much they loved their town.”

The book begins with stories of daily life in Luboml, in today’s Ukraine. German troops entered the town in June 1941. In October 1942, virtually all the Jews in the area were killed in a mass shooting on the outskirts of town.

The Luboml stories were put in the hands of students aged 13-20. Erin Riley’s English students wrote their own fictional stories. Gary Swigert’s shop class started working on a memorial. Sharon Crocilla’s students began working on woodcuts based on photographs from the book. Snyder’s students used the stories to hone their reading skills.

One afternoon, Snyder split her reading class in half and had the students discuss the stories. She overheard “four Haitian girls yakking away a mile a minute in Creole, telling the story of Luboml.”

“The Nazis shouldn’t have taken them away and done that to them because they were good people,” said Jennifer Rivera, 15, who said the stories about Luboml’s marketplace reminded her of the flea market in Lake Worth.

“When I used to live in Haiti, we all used to live in a little town, we used to know each other, we knew each other’s business, we all could relate, you know,” said Mendel Surpris, 18.

But his family felt threatened by lawlessness in Haiti and wanted to leave. This helped him identify with the residents of Luboml.

“I mean, how would you like to live in a place where you are threatened? Where you don’t feel comfortable, where you can’t do what you want?” Surpris said.

The project has become a pilot program with support from Yad Vashem; Aaron Ziegelman, a New York businessman born in Luboml who financed a documentary and museum exhibition on the town; and LEAH, the League for Educational Awareness of the Holocaust.

The project is designed to build a bridge to the day when eyewitnesses are no longer here to testify, said Eli Zborowski, chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem.

“The Holocaust is a Jewish tragedy but it” has universal dimensions, said Zborowski, who was born in Poland in 1925 and survived largely thanks to righteous gentiles. “We are reaching out to the non-Jewish community as much as to the Jewish community because we live among non-Jews and we want them to understand the tragedy. It starts with prejudice and discrimination.”

Such education is urgently needed, he said.

“We can’t compare, but what did the world do” to prevent the genocides in Cambodia and Darfur, Sudan? he asked. “The world has not learned yet.”

Snyder’s challenge was to get her students to work on their reading and other skills in the context of the Holocaust. She enlisted the help of the Bermans, who introduced the students to the Yad Vashem database of Holocaust victims’ names.

“I sat down with one young man who was doing everything he could to show he was bored to tears,” George Berman said. “I suggested he might like to look at people his age who were killed, and he got about 10 or so young people” from Luboml, and adopted one.

“They got to be more into it as they realized the similarities between themselves and the people they were studying,” reading teacher Klaes Bell said. “It was a challenge at first getting them into the names, the language; the accents were difficult for them.”

But as they read about the families and kids, they realized that “Luboml is kind of like a universal story for how people respond to adversity,” Bell said.

Not all has gone smoothly: Special education teacher Meryl Preston found that someone had stolen four of the beaded bracelets students were making to honor the victims from Luboml.

And there were some tough questions: One boy said he thought the Jews must have done something to deserve what happened.

“I asked, ‘What did the Africans do to deserve slavery?’ I keep trying with the kids to do a parallel,” Snyder said. “And I do think they get it.”

For Surpris, who graduates this year, the experience may provide inspiration.

“I write poetry about people, I like strong people, heroes,” he said. “And to me, the people who died in the Holocaust, they were kind of like heroes. They had the will to live, that was the key: the will to live. And I respect that.”

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