Bat mitzvah has special project for her family’s gratitude

Bat mitzvah has special project for her family’s gratitude

Natalie Pittman and her parents, Vivian and Robert, and siblings, Sam, 16, and Eva, 10.
Natalie Pittman and her parents, Vivian and Robert, and siblings, Sam, 16, and Eva, 10.

When Glen Rock teen Natalie Pittman sought a mitzvah project and an organization to partner with for her bat mitzvah, it was her deeply personal connection, the rescue of her own grandmother and great grandmother during the Shoah, that linked her with The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR).

For decades, the JFR has been dedicated to identifying, honoring, and supporting non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Over the past 30 years, the foundation has distributed more than $42 million to support these Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews, who risked their lives, and often the lives of their families, to save Jews from death during the Shoah. The group provides monthly awards for these Righteous Gentiles and sends special awards for the purchase of food for the Christmas holiday. The organization also runs a nationally acclaimed Holocaust teacher education program that shares the legacy of Righteous Gentiles with middle and high school teachers from around the country and parts of Europe.

“Without these heroes, my grandmother, my mother, my brother, my sister and I wouldn’t be here today,” said Natalie, 13, an 8th grader at Glen Rock Middle School.

She celebrated her bat mitzvah on December 4, 2021, at her family’s synagogue, Glen Rock Jewish Center and “twinned” with a rescuer identified by JFR.

Beyond her bat mitzvah, Natalie wanted to do more for the organization. She will help promote the JFR’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program, an initiative where the young participant learns about, honors and raises funds to help support a specific rescuer, as part of her bat mitzvah project. Natalie will also take the time to learn about specific aspects of the Holocaust, and educate peers about history, choices, acts of courage and humanity, and taking action to help those in need.

Going beyond the day of her celebration, Natalie plans to visit schools and promote the program. She is scheduled to speak at Hebrew schools located within the Glen Rock Jewish Center in Glen Rock, Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan, and Temple Emanu-El in Closter. Natalie is working on expanding her list of scheduled presentations.

“My hope is to help others truly understand the risks these rescuers took to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust and the generational impact they’ve made. I hope to help teens my age better understand how the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous helps these heroes and the ways we can help them accomplish this mission.”

Natalie with her maternal grandparents, Manny Genn and Myra Herbst Genn.

Natalie’s grandmother, Myra Herbst Genn, who was just a young child at the time, her great grandmother, Sabina Herbst, z”l, along with Sabina’s sister-in-law, Faiga Cizes, z”l, were hidden by a non-Jewish family in their barn attic in Poland following their escape from a ghetto in World War II. The heroism of the rescuers ensured their survival during the Holocaust.

Vivian Pittman, Natalie’s mother, knows well her family’s history and stays connected to the descendants of her family’s rescuers. While Wincenty and Stefania Rajski, the non-Jewish Polish couple whose family hid her mother, grandmother, and aunt in the attic of their barn for nearly a year, are no longer alive, Vivian has met their descendants and continues to be Facebook friends with them.

“We must always recognize the courage and kindness of these people,” said Vivian. “At the risk of their own lives, they stood up in the face of evil and helped save the lives. They saved the lives of my family.”

Originally from Tembovla, Poland, the lives of Sabina, her husband, Chaim Herbst, and their toddler daughter, Myra, changed irrevocably and traumatically as it did for millions of other European Jews. While just a very young child, Myra remembers the Nazis forcing them to leave their home and roundups to kill Jews, including one in which her father was killed. When her mother saw mass graves being dug for Jews, she took her daughter, and her sister-in-law and fled to the woods and eventually to the farm of Wincenty Rajski, a shoemaker who had been a customer of Genn’s father’s leather goods store. While the Rajskis were reluctant to take them in at their own peril, they eventually did. They hid the two woman and the little girl in their barn. At first, they had placed them in a hole in the ground, but there was no light and no air, so they were secreted in the barn’s attic. The family brought in scraps of food and water to sustain them. They put rabbits nearby so when the Nazis came with their bloodhounds to find Jews, the animal’s scent would cover the human scent, said Vivian.

“My mother (Myra) remembers her mother (Sabina) braiding her hair,” said Vivian. “She also remembers the constant fear she felt.”

When the Russian liberated the village in late 1944, they went to a displaced persons camp. In 1948, they emigrated to the United States and lived in Queens.

For many years, Myra never spoke about her war years, said Vivian. But Myra began to confront her past after she attended a convention for the ADL’s Hidden Child Foundation. She later began speaking about her experience publicly.

Reunion of the families and descendants of the Rajskis and the Herbsts years ago.

In 1997 Myra met the family of her rescuers — the couple’s children, son Leon Rajski, and daughters, Irena and Stanislawa – in an emotional reunion.

“You are my Polish family,” Myra told the Daily News, which reported on the reunion. “You are my Polish brothers and sisters.”

Today, Myra and her husband Manny Genn live in Fort Lee and enjoy their family.

And the chain of Jewish pride and Jewish commitment continues.

Natalie has followed in her family’s footsteps, as her older brother Samuel also partnered with the JFR for his own bar mitzvah project in 2018. In that project, Samuel twinned with Wincenty and Stefania Rajski, the individuals responsible for saving his own grandmother and great grandmother during the Holocaust.

“The JFR’s Twinning Program not only creates a unique opportunity for a young person to learn about real bravery and heroism, but through funds raised will provide necessary financial assistance to individuals who once performed an extraordinary life-saving act of kindness on behalf of a Jewish person,” said JFR Executive Vice President Stanlee Stahl. “We are grateful that Natalie is using her milestone occasion to advance the JFR’s important work.

The JFR continues its work of providing monthly financial assistance to more than 150 aged and needy Righteous Gentiles, living in 14 countries. Since its founding, the JFR has provided more than $42 million to aged and needy rescuers — helping to repay a debt of gratitude on behalf of the Jewish people to these noble men and women. Its Holocaust teacher education program has become a standard for teaching the history of the Holocaust and educating teachers and students about the significance of the Righteous as moral and ethical exemplars.

“Natalie is a very special young lady,” said Ms. Stahl. “We are so pleased to be working with the family again and for them to recognize those who risked their lives. Natalie should especially be commended for going above and beyond for her bat mitzvah project. She didn’t stop at just twinning with a rescuer, but she is going to be a young ambassador telling her family’s story and educating young people.”

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