Daffodils, memory, and joy
Montebello Jewish Center’s nursery school children dedicate their garden to Holocaust memory
A Jewish star is just a six-pointed star. If it’s yellow, it’s yellow. The symbolism is added later.
The Nazis made Jews wear a yellow star on their arms. During that time, in that place, the yellow star was a symbol of degradation, displaying its wearers as less than fine, upstanding people, and eventually displaying its wearers as less than people. As not quite human.
It was meant to be a sign of shame.
A daffodil is a glowingly yellow flower, innocent, vulnerable, a buttery sign of spring and hope and life.
It looks a little bit like a yellow star.
So why not take the yellow star and transform it into a daffodil? “We transform it into a thing of beauty and a sign of pride,” Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, the rabbi of the Montebello Jewish Center, said.
Wait. What? No. It’s a real thing. The daffodil project honors the memory of the children who died in the Shoah by trying to plant 1.5 million of the yellow blooms. That’s one daffodil for each child.
On Sunday, one month into nominal spring, after weeks of cold, clammy, drippy winter that refused to make way for spring, synagogue members and the children in the shul’s Hebrew school will dedicate the daffodils they’ve planted. With luck, it will be warm enough and dry enough to allow them to do it outside.
Trudy Album is a Holocaust survivor who lives in Suffern and is an active member of the Montebello Jewish Center; she is “one of the community’s superstars,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “All the local rabbis know her. Everyone knows her wherever she goes, and she goes everywhere.”
The daffodil project at Montebello was her idea, he said.
“About a year ago, she came to the synagogue with the idea of the daffodil project,” he said. The daffodil project involves planting daffodils in memory of the children the Nazis murdered, using the plant’s characteristics — the bright, hopeful, pure color, the star-like shape, the fragility and vulnerability, and the ability to push through frozen ground and leftover brown grass to be the harbinger of spring.”
So that’s what the shul did. Both children and adults planted bulbs, working from designs drawn up by synagogue member Elaine Allinson, Ms. Album said. Now the children and the adults will dedicate the garden together.
There are also practical reasons for planning daffodils, Ms. Album added. The deer can’t eat them. “We have a lot of deer here,” she said.
“We want to make sure that this is not a one-off,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “The symbolism for us also is the Jewish idea that we must be grounded in the past and looking forward toward the future.”
Ms. Album has a terrible past, although her life since then has been good. She was born into a large, loving family in Czechoslovakia, in a town where everyone really did get along, she said; she remembers her childhood as idyllic. Eventually the Germans came in, and life became first sour and then increasingly impossible. When she and the other Jews first had to wear yellow stars, “some people didn’t talk to me anymore, or even look at me, and other people didn’t let that happen,” she said. “But I always was proud of being a Jew, and I wore it like a badge.”
Things got worse and worse, until the Jewish community was shipped off to Auschwitz. Ms. Album was sent to one line while her mother and sisters filed off to another, waiting on line to be gassed to death and then cremated. Ms. Album went from concentration camp to concentration camp, always on the brink of violent death, never falling into the abyss.
But she survived.
She also has written about her life. It’s online, at www.trudyalbum.com; it’s hard to read it without crying, and it is impossible to read it without being moved enormously by Ms. Album’s tenacity, strong will, courage, and refusal to give up hope.
After a long life, a good marriage to a man she loved, who now is dead, and children, Ms. Album never has stopped trying to figure out how to keep the understanding of the horrors of the Shoah real, while not only allowing for but actively seeking sunlight and joy.
That’s where the daffodils came in.
Ms. Album’s son Keith died this year, so the dedication on Sunday will be in his memory as well as the memory of the children slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators. But the daffodils are beautiful. “The purpose is to remember the past and look toward a good Jewish future,” Ms. Album said. “They tried to kill us, but we still are here.”