Eight survivors graduate from Jewish high school in SoCal

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At first glance, the idea seemed sort of maudlin.

New Community Jewish High School in the San Fernando Valley awarded eight Holocaust survivors honorary high school diplomas a month ago, symbolically handing them back a part of their adolescence that had been stolen by the war.

The emotions seemed almost too easy to elicit, the standing ovation the elderly graduates received too disturbingly predictable.

But between the bubbling emotion of the graduating class, and the pride of the survivors, there emerged a sense that the bond between them was not only intimate but unexpectedly substantive.

The students met these survivors on March of the Living, a pilgrimage to Polish concentration camps and then to Israel. During the event, 10,000 people from around the world march on the railroad tracks that carried prisoners from Auschwitz to the Birkenau crematoria.

On the trip, the teens got to know the survivors, and heard their stories of lost youth. It hit the 17- and 18-year-olds — these grandparent figures were the same age and younger when their worlds caved in. They lost families, they lost their homes and their bearings; they never had a chance to do something as simple as take algebra and literature and biology.

After 35 NCJHS seniors — among the 130 kids that made up the L.A. delegation — returned from March of the Living two months ago, their instincts told them to embrace these Shoah survivors.

So on May 28, Dorothy Greenstein, Jean Greenstein (not related), Sigi Hart, Emil and Erika Jacoby, Sidonia Lax and Paula Lebovics joined the 88 graduates (survivor Halina Wachtel couldn’t be there) at the NCJHS graduation.

NCJHS, which opened its doors in 2002, is the third largest Jewish community high school in the nation.

As the high school seniors and the senior citizens together marched in the processional to Israeli and American pop songs, wearing billowing crimson gowns and tassled caps, they received their diplomas, turned their tassels, and got flowers and hugs from friends and family.

Emil Jacoby, who for many years headed the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, counted this as his sixth diploma. Hart said it was his first.

“The only place I ever graduated was Auschwitz,” Hart said. “I never thought at 83 I would have a graduation!”

The day was especially meaningful for Hart, who graduated alongside his granddaughter, Nicole Birnebaum.

And then there was Paula Lebovics, who carries in her purse a folded-up photocopy of a photograph that today hangs in one of the bunkers in Auschwitz. Lebovics is in the picture, a gaunt, frightened 11-year-old in a crowd of inmates behind barbed wire.

Lebovics spent her high school years in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where she was taught Hebrew. She earned her high school diploma in 1968 after attending night school in Los Angeles.

For Emil Jacoby and his wife, Erika, the graduation was a sweet moment of continuity, not only because they saw how these kids would carry on a legacy that was almost lost, but because both had taught some of the school’s founders, and the graduates’ parents.

And for Sidonia Lax, it was her first time in cap and gown.

“For these children, living in comfort like they live today, I want them to learn how to deal with the challenges and the controversies they will be faced with in the future,” Lax said.