With every passing year, the challenge of keeping alive the memory of victims of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes grows more difficult, and the promotion of tolerance more urgent.
This is why Ludmila Prakhina of Fair Lawn and her two sons, Boris of Paramus and Michael of Glen Rock, established the Prakhin International Literary Foundation in 2006.
Ms. Prakhina’s parents were arrested and exiled by the Stalinist regime in a 1941 mass deportation from Moldova.
The foundation provides “financial and moral support to authors engaged in the global fight for democracy, peace, equality of all races and cultures, and the suppression and eradication of fascism and anti-Semitism.” The foundation also runs an annual student competition recognizing works of art, prose, poetry, journalism, or scholarship about that tragic period of European history.
This year, the foundation received 45 submissions from schools that use a curriculum, “Stalin and his Repressive Regime,” created by the Prakhin Foundation in conjunction with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and Genocide.
Three New Jersey high school students received prizes for their writing at the Prakhin Foundation’s 12th Annual Student Literary Award Ceremony, held January 31 at Bergen Community College.
The winners were Daniel Mezhiborsky of Fair Lawn High School for his poem “Gone” (see box); Chloe Yang of Weehawken High School for her poem “Black smoke filled my lungs”; and Aditi Desai of Livingston High School for her article “Equity.”
Daniel, a student in Fair Lawn High School’s elective course on Holocaust and genocide taught by Henry Van Kooy, was unable to attend the ceremony because of an injury. In his absence Suzanne Gons, the supervisor of social studies, art, and technology in the Fair Lawn school district, read his winning poem to the audience.
Talking to the Jewish Standard afterward, Daniel explained that his poem was motivated by his feeling that many people, especially in the United States, don’t know much about Jewish culture.
“I was born in Israel, and I’m a Jew,” he said. “My parents are European Jews, and so Jewish culture is a large part of my life. I believe that one of the most important things I can do is to help people to remember the tragedy that happened during the Holocaust.”
He stressed that the poem is fictional; he has an older sister but wrote the piece as if he were an older brother.
“I wanted to imagine what I would be thinking or going through if I were in that situation,” he said. “That’s where it stemmed from. There’s not always a huge opportunity to express these kinds of things, so I wanted to take the opportunity when it came up in class.”
Daniel, who is almost 18, has lived in Fair Lawn for nearly five years. He hopes to become an electrical engineer. He has not yet visited the sites of former death camps in Europe but he hopes to do so.
The Prakhin awards program was highlighted by presentations from Latvian high school principal Nora Šņepste and Tecla Bekesha, director of the Preili History and Applied Arts Museum in Latvia. Fair Lawn’s Mayor Kurt Peluso and a Holocaust survivor and motivational speaker, Sami Steigmann of New York, also addressed the gathering.
Bernhard Storch, a 96-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor who participated in the liberation of four extermination camps as a soldier with the Polish army, and spelunker Chris Nicola, co-author of “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story,” were the guest speakers. Mr. Nicola’s book is about his discovery of the West Ukrainian caves where two Jewish families hid during the Nazi occupation.
The Bergen Community College Center for Peace, Justice and Reconciliation and its Office of Multicultural Affairs were among the event’s co-sponsors.
“We used to do the ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in in Manhattan, but in the last two years we have held it at Bergen Community College to make it more convenient for local adults and children to attend,” Ms. Prakhina said.
She always makes sure to involve young people, and this year the program included musical and dance performances by children and teens as well as by Dr. Tamara Reps Freeman, a Holocaust ethnomusicologist who performs Holocaust-era music on her 1935 Joseph Bausch viola.
For more information about the foundation and the awards, go to www.prakhin.org.
By Daniel Mezhiborsky
My sister —
Where is my sister?
We stepped off the railcar like they said
We waited in the long line and smelled the smoke
My mom cried.
My arms ached
And the people all around were quiet.
Where is my sister?
She’s here. I can see her.
I hold her hand. She’s shaking.
The line is narrowing
And I see the man in the white coat.
My sister’s crying
And I stop to hold her.
“Bewegung.” Move, the guard says.
Our mother’s behind us as we step up to the man.
He points to one of the lines behind him.
Where’s my sister? I feel her hand.
We walk carefully to where the man pointed
And my sister’s shaking calmed.
But then, a shout — and another hand pulling on my sister’s arm.
I didn’t have time to scream before he had her
Before the guard took her away.
But make no mistake. It came soon after.
I screamed like I have never screamed before.
I looked to see my sister —
On her face I saw the most excruciating of expressions,
The most cursed of looks,
The most painful of cries.
In her eyes I saw fear,
I saw confusion,
I saw sorrow,
I saw pure terror.
But then the crowd closed around them
And I was left standing alone.
The world around me moved, but I stood still.
The pang of uselessness, the surge of anguish that flooded me… I felt my soul
crumble. My knees weakened. I fell.