Teens and families meet survivors at S.F. study session

Holocaust survivor Judith Rabbie was in good spirits when she walked into the lobby of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay last Sunday and put on a nametag.

"Do I stick it on my right side or my left side?" the speaker asked Leslie Kane, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Northern California, which organized the community day of learning in San Francisco.

"I don't think it matters. You can put it on any side you want to," Kane said, helping Rabbie, who survived the Holocaust by concealing her Jewish identity and hiding with a family of Catholics until the end of World War II.

The moment was touching and oddly poignant, in sharp contrast to the yellow stars Nazis forced Jews to wear in Rabbie's native Hungary.

That afternoon for 3-1/2 hours, Rabbie joined other Holocaust survivors, educators and community members who had come to teach teens and their families about the Shoah.

The Holocaust Center conducts classroom programs and intensive workshops year round. It approached last Sunday's day of learning program differently, though, with creative techniques designed to educate and enlighten not only high school kids but their families as well.

"The purpose of this Holocaust day is to make remembrance an intergenerational learning event," said Kane. "We honor its memory through study, we learn through study, and this year we are going about it with a series of creative and hands-on workshops."

With titles such as "Theatrical Reflections of the Shoah" and workshops aimed at calling attention to the importance of names and identities, the day of learning allowed survivors such as Rabbie to bring new meaning to varying aspects of living through the trauma of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Center invited students in grades seven through 12, along with their families, to engage in interactive workshops where they created rituals, read theatrical plays, and wrote and participated in plays of their own.

And, of course, they listened to the survivors recount their harrowing and heartbreaking tales of struggle and survival.

Helen Farkas, an 83-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, is a seasoned speaker who has told her story to high school kids since 1974. Presenting to children, she said, is no different from presenting to adults. She leaves in every detail, as sharp and as clear as memory allows her to recount.

"I don't change or tone down my story because it's not fiction," said the Burlingame speaker. "It's all true. It's how I remember it."

Teachers and students write her hundreds of notes a year thanking her for her candor.

According to their letters, she said, young kids take away a message of love and tolerance more than anything else from her story.

At the day of learning, oral history was coupled with hands-on exercises that conveyed such topics as Holocaust denial, Hitler youth and the Jewish resistance.

Reading from plays written during the Holocaust, as well as exploring how particular themes were used to varying ends, Berkeley High School sophomore Joe Schickman, a third-generation Holocaust survivor, had already learned a lot about the Holocaust. But he was still surprised by how much more he gleaned about the horrors of the past.

"It's always amazing to me how the world keeps people ignorant on the Holocaust," Schickman said, following a lesson on the fragility of memory and perception. "We've done a couple of units about the Holocaust at my school this past month. But the more we can learn, the more people can educate themselves on the things that really happened."

Adrian Schrek, director of education at the Holocaust Center, organized a series of workshop topics specifically to keep the truth of the past relevant, especially among the young.

"One hour alone can impact a young person's life," said Schrek, who has worked in Holocaust education for more than 10 years. In the past, she has brought Holocaust survivors to speak at middle schools, high schools, synagogues and universities. "Our speakers generate thousands of responses from students and kids."

The feedback, she said, reflects the type of impact a single speaker can make on a child.

"They say things like, after hearing a speaker, they've learned to appreciate their families more, or they've learned to rethink life. We had one child tell us that when she went home she was going to hug her parents and hug them every day."

More importantly, she explained, many have said that they better recognize intolerance and will open their mouths against it.

This was the first time Schrek put together a community-wide day of learning for teens and their families.

"The difference with this particular program is that we have people here from ages 12 to 85," she said "Plus, this program's totally participatory. The goal was to get teens involved in the creative process."

From drama to arts and crafts, the kids not only participated but also organized events. By coordinating the closing ceremony, kids were able to articulate all that they had learned that day before the nearly 200 other participants.

"It's a different approach to learning," said 15-year-old Ross Bercun, a sophomore at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. "We've looked at so many different perspectives today that have helped all of us shape our own."