Cary Reichardt, chair of the history department at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, knows that her students have learned a good deal about the Holocaust before they reach her class. Her goal, she says, is to go beyond what they have learned, "to put a face on it."
TABC student Yehuda Safier of Teaneck swaps stories with Regina Salomon of Fair Lawn.
In the Holocaust studies class she created at the Teaneck yeshiva last year, "we don’t have a standard Holocaust education curriculum," Reichardt told The Jewish Standard. As part of the course, she said, students are introduced to large amounts of literature and hear directly from survivors. This year, several new elements were incorporated into the mix, intensifying students’ connection to the material, said Reichardt.
According to Ann Pogolowitz, coordinator of Caf? Europa, a social program for Holocaust survivors based at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and sponsored by Jewish Family & Children’s Service of North Jersey, Reichardt approached the group this fall, describing her course and offering to bring students to visit the seniors. The November visit was followed by a highly successful one in December, said JF&CS director Abe Davis, who added that Reichardt now plans to bring the students on a monthly basis.
Caf? Europa’s December Chanukah party "is a big event for many survivors, bringing out people from Fair Lawn and other parts of Bergen and Passaic counties," said Davis, who said that this year’s event, held Dec. 1′, was attended by about 100 survivors. More than a dozen students participated as well.
Reichardt said the visits to Caf? Europa have left an indelible impression on the students. "They enjoy it and look forward to it," she noted. "It’s relaxed, there’s give and take, and they get to have a conversation." And, she noted, the seniors clearly enjoy interacting with the 17-year-old TABC history students. "You can see it in their eyes," she said. "They’re charmed. They dance together. They love seeing young boys with kippot."
Before the visit, Reichardt encouraged students to ask seniors questions about their lives before the Shoah, for example, how they celebrated Chanukah when they were young. The teacher, who was able to listen in to several conversations at the event, said it was clear that "some friendships are developing." In December, she said, one senior apparently continuing a conversation with students begun in November brought in documents relating to his participation in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project.
"Students enjoy hearing the seniors’ stories," said Reichardt, who added that while some survivors choose to speak about their camp experiences, others focus on how they have rebuilt their lives. "This is still relevant," she said, pointing out that in a class on the psychology of the Holocaust, students explore the questions, "Who is a victim?" and "Who is a survivor?"
"It’s important to look at how they survived," she said. And for some, she added, the key to survival was looking toward the future.
The history teacher initiated a second Holocaust-related project for her 1’th-grade students last year, connecting the class with the New Jersey Writers’ Project. According to its Website, the group, sponsored by the education department of Playwrights Theatre in Madison, seeks to "provide opportunities for writers to develop their works in a nurturing environment and to connect with new audiences."
The collaboration will bring teaching artists from the writers’ project to TABC, to work both with Reichardt’s Holocaust studies class and an English class led by Dr. Carol Master. Meetings began in November and will continue through the spring. Reichardt’s class will have eight sessions with a teaching artist, creating a script based on a recent newspaper article. The students’ work will culminate in a presentation marking Yom HaShoah. To make the piece more authentic, Reichardt suggests that students "make a mental note of everything they hear" when spending time with the survivors at Caf? Europa.
For more information about the survivors’ group, which meets the second Tuesday of each month, call (973) 595-0111. Transportation can be provided.