Submitted: January 22, 2019

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This year Beth El Congregation’s older Talmud Torah students are learning about the Holocaust firsthand through interviewing our community’s survivors. This special program was created to enrich the curriculum of our Talmud Torah students while increasing their awareness of the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism as well as preserving these accounts for future generations.

The students began the year by studying World War II and attending a 2-day workshop conducted by Mary Melcher, a professional historian, who taught the students how to conduct oral history interviews. After the workshop with Mary, the interviews were scheduled. Prior to interviewing a survivor, the students research the area that the interviewee was living in before World War II and develop the questions that arise from their research. This helps focus the historical accounts leading to better understanding of each survivor’s story.

A recent interviewee, Rose Jalowiec, told them, “as you well know, today is the first night of Hanukkah; of miracles and light, and I want you to know that you are looking a miracle that survived Nazi camps and extermination.” Rose told the students about several times she evaded capture and death on her journey from Poland to Russia as a young child. One such instance occurred when Rose and the others she was with were about to cross the border into Russia. Rose was too exhausted to continue and was left hiding under a bush to await someone to return to help her cross. While she was waiting for rescue, a German patrolman with a dog walked up to the area where she was hiding. The soldier did not see her and the dog did not bark. Afterward, she was successfully rescued and taken across the border into Russia. Rose considers this a miracle and thinks about this pivotal moment in her life even today. You can watch Rose’s interview at youtu.be/7V7275u5DrY.

Another of Beth El’s survivors, Abe Meth, of blessed memory, read Torah at Beth El for many years. Abe passed away in 2017, shortly before his 105th birthday. As part of our project, the students were able to watch videos that were created of Abe, prior to his death, in which he told his own story of survival. Abe happened to be saved by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who helped thousands of Hungarian Jews during WWII. Abe was able to utilize his own calligraphy skills to help Wallenberg make forged documents that were used to save other Jews. As a part of Abe’s message, he thanked the organizers who documented his story because Abe knew the importance of people hearing firsthand accounts of these tragic events and urging the viewers to “Never forget.”

In the lead up to an interview with a survivor, Alena Cantor, the students learned about Czechoslovakia and the Munich Agreement, which granted land in Czechoslovakia to Germany to hopefully bring peace to Europe. However, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia six months later. During the interview, the students found out that Alena Cantor’s family fled Czechoslovakia after Hitler violated the Munich Agreement, and then had to flee France as well to avoid the invasion of France. Alena’s grandmother, Emma Bastyr, was not able to flee with the rest of the family and spent most of World War II in the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, prisoners there were given the option to go to Switzerland. Most of the prisoners were afraid it was a trick and did not accept. Emma decided to take her chances and was taken to Switzerland and eventually freed with nearly 1,200 other Jews.

These interview experiences have sparked an insatiable curiosity in our students. Each interview inspires more research– asking parents and grandparents about family history, reading Holocaust accounts in books, scouring the internet for information. The students love sharing their findings with the entire class. Beth El treasures the inter-generational bonds within the community that this project is building.

The Beth El students will continue conducting interviews with survivors during the rest of the school year. Their ultimate goal is to publish a book for the beginning of next school year containing their reflections. They also hope to provide recordings of the interviews to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society and Arizona Memory Project. If you or a member of your family is willing to be interviewed, please contact Kim Mertens at kmertens@bethelphoenix.com or Mayra Ramos at mramos@bethelphoenix.com.