Holocaust lesson the Yavneh way
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Holocaust lesson the Yavneh way

Annual play makes Shoah personal for school's eighth-graders

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Yavneh Academy eighth-graders make up the cast of “For the Love of Bondi.” photos courtesy Yavneh

Nearly 70 years have passed since Bondi Roth perished at the hands of the Nazis. Last Thursday night, however, Yavneh Academy students breathed new life into the soft-spoken boy who loved quoting Psalms and never lost his faith, as they performed “For the Love of Bondi,” based on a true story about brothers Irving and Bondi Roth.

In what has become an annual ritual, Yavneh eighth-graders gave faces and voices to martyrs of the Shoah who might otherwise have been forgotten through their performance for 1,000 parents and area students.

The play depicts the story of two brothers who were raised in a privileged home in Slovakia and their travails during the war, including rising anti-Semitism and oppressive laws against Jews, fleeing to Hungary, deportation to Auschwitz, and the Death March to Buchenwald, where the brothers were forcibly separated. Through it all, Irving and Bondi struggle to stay together, fight to survive, and to hold onto their faith.

The Holocaust play, which has been an integral part of the Jewish history curriculum at Yavneh for over 30 years, was written and dramatized by the eighth-grade class under the direction of the playwright Dominique Cieri and Holocaust Studies coordinator Rabbi Shmuel Burstein.

“For me, the best part of this is the opportunity to bring to life, albeit for a short while, some of the Jews who perished, allowing them moments of life on stage before well over a thousand people,” said Burstein. “It gives me pleasure knowing that many people heard the names of those who have been largely forgotten through the overwhelming destruction of their families; that many were afforded a snapshot of their life experience, albeit a tragic one.”

It may be difficult for the Yavneh students to fathom the catastrophic events that occurred, he said, but he added that the experience of the play guides them to a greater understanding of that era. They “take ownership of the story and many feel, as the date of production nears, that they are stepping into the roles of the characters they are playing on stage,” said Burstein.

The experience of portraying characters living during the darkest period of Jewish history makes a weightier impact than learning about it in textbooks, students said.

Talia Levie, 14, played the role of a nanny forced to leave the Jewish family she had been with for years, when new laws forbade non-Jews to work for Jews. The play helped her develop a deeper understanding of the emotional turmoil of the era, she said, adding, “I gained a new respect for survivors.”

Ayal Yakobe, who wrote the play along with several classmates, said he was impressed by the character of Bondi, for his continual faith and optimism. “The believer is the one who dies, but at the end, Irving learns from him how to live his life,” said Yakobe. At the end of the play, although he realizes he lost many relatives, Irving recites the Sh’ma, just as his brother used to do with great fervor.

Yakobe said he is gratified to be at a school that gives students the chance to delve into the Holocaust in so special a way. “This is a unique experience,” he said.

The highlight, many students said, was coming face to face with history as they met the subject of their play, Irving Roth, who spoke at Yavneh earlier this year. Roth co-authored the 2004 book “Bondi’s Brother,” on which the play was based. He spoke to the Yavneh students about being sent to the death camps at age 14, the same age most of the eighth-graders are now.

Dena Winchester, who played the role of Bondi, said she was deeply affected by meeting Roth and reading his book. “He was very inspiring,” she said, adding that she found his story fascinating. “He kept saying he wants to make sure people remember the Holocaust.”

Roth and his cousin, who were portrayed in the play, attended last week’s performance. After the finale, Roth, who was moved to tears by the show, was escorted to the stage by the actor who portrayed him, amid a thunderous standing ovation. “Tonight, you brought my brother back to life,” Roth said in a choked voice. “I felt his soul in this room.”

Levie, said she and her peers felt moved to have the ultimate “star” of their show present. “At the end of the play, when he hugged the person who played him, I cried,” said Levie. “He said that in the two hours of watching the play, he got to see the spirit of his brother brought back to life. It was very emotional.”

Holocaust education at the school does not only focus on death and destruction, but is about renewal and restoration, said Yavneh Principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp after the program. “It is a course in Jewish hashkafah [philosophy] and outlook. It is a course that provides our children with a framework to build their emotional capacity and spiritual depth.” Through these concepts, students gain life lessons in how Jews are to respond to crisis and tragedy in the world, he said.

Shira Golubtchik, who played Irving Roth, said that when she first stepped into her role it was difficult for her to imagine and feel the tragedies that occurred. But eventually, “I felt like I became Irving Roth and felt the pains that he went through.”

Meeting Roth, she said, gave her and her peers a more intimate way to relate to the tragic events that occurred over a half-century ago.

“I felt a personal connection with him,” she said. “It was an honor to portray his story in such a powerful way.”

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