Sounds and silence

Sounds and silence

Frantic footsteps above lead to shouts in German and the sound of Nazi boots on the farmhouse floor above the Sher family’s heads. The family stays huddled together in the dark, trying to remain as silent as possible.

"We heard you were hiding Jews," a Nazi says, revealing the information he received from neighbors who had seen Mr. Sher earlier in the day. His brigade practically dismantles the inside of the house looking for the Jews hidden beneath the floorboards. They find a child’s doll in the attic, a curiosity in a house that supposedly has no children.

Chaim Strauss listens to "The Hiding." Josh Lipowsky

It belongs to my niece, Mrs. Kranski quickly explains; the Shers’ 4-year-old daughter is even more frightened, fearing that her doll may have doomed her family, but her mother silences her when she wants to cry out. The Germans sneer. They don’t believe Mrs. Kranski, but they are still unaware of the Jews hidden under the floorboards. They fire shots and warn that they will be back.

The Kranski family has much to fear. They know the penalties for hiding Jews, but still, a family of four — the Sher family — remains hidden in their home.

"Welcome back," says Rabbi Michael Gisser, turning on the lights in the room. He instructs the students at Torah Academy of Bergen County to remove their headphones. The students have just spent seven minutes listening to a fictionalized account of a Polish family hiding Jews during the Holocaust. The room is silent.

"The Hiding" is an audio presentation created by the Holocaust Museum & Study Center of Rockland County. Through high-quality audio recordings, listeners are put in the shoes of a young boy and his family in hiding during World War II.

"This is the generation that listens to things on headphones," Gissin says. "They’re using their imagination and being creative; they’re envisioning themselves as part of the story. So it becomes a personal story, it’s not something that’s [as] far removed as a picture on the wall. They’re basically part of the action."

Every student at Torah Academy experienced the story of the Kranskis and the Shers on April ‘4, the day before Yom HaShoah. Although the school had a full lineup of events scheduled for that day, the faculty wanted to give the students another perspective through the audio tale.

"It’s made the kids realize really what the experience was like, what it was like for the non-Jew hiding the Jew," says Rabbi Joshua Kahn, a teacher at Torah Academy who sat in on some of the sessions. "It gave them a perspective that they don’t generally think about."

Arthur Poleyeff, principal for general studies at Torah Academy, gauged the program’s success by monitoring the noise level in the classroom.

"For the kids to be sitting without a sound means that it’s working," he says. "[It gives them] an appreciation of what it was to be a gentile hiding Jewish children. It’s a different perspective. We generally look at it from the Jewish perspective, here the perspective is a gentile perspective."

It’s that perspective Kahn wanted to impress upon the students so that faced with similar situations, like the genocide in Darfur, they too will become "righteous."

"We have that same responsibility, not being the bystanders and to step in and try to help — being the righteous Jews," Kahn says.

Perspective is what "The Hiding" is all about. Placing the students in the roles of Jews in hiding and pushing their imaginations to recreate those scenes is a more meaningful way of reaching them than just showing pictures of Nazi atrocities, according to Gisser.

"Images only mean so much to this generation, the Ipod/Playstation/Xbox generation," he says. "A lot of mean violence is glorified in a lot of these games, so when they see images of the Holocaust, they don’t have the same impact anymore."

David Einhorn, an 11th grader from Teaneck, said his own imagination-created images that transported him into the story. "It made me really feel how they were. You really felt like you were there, you could hear different noises, different thoughts — it was scary."

Gisser told the students to think about Passover this year — two days of yom tov followed immediately by Shabbat. What did it feel like not being able to play video games or go out for three days, he asked them.

"It made me realize how spoiled we are," said 11th grader Ari Ginsberg of Teaneck. "After yontif we get back to our normal lives. These people … it’s months and years … I don’t know how we would handle it."

Despite the powerful impact of the audio presentation, Gisser says the museum deliberately avoided sounds — such as those of people being herded into cattle cars or living through the experience of the camps themselves — that might have been too intense and overshadowed reflection. And if it does become too intense, Gisser explained, students can simply open their eyes. The museum is considering another program using the sounds of liberation from the camps.

The center chose Poland as the backdrop for the presentation because it had the largest number — not the highest percentage, Gisser clarifies, but the largest number — of righteous gentiles.

"We don’t hear about the families that saved one family. We wanted to make it personal by having one specific family saving one specific family."

As for the Sher and Kranski families themselves, they don’t actually exist. The story was created using compilations of different stories from several hidden children who served as advisers on the project.

"It’s real to the point that it happened to somebody," Gisser says. He noted that the hidden children who reviewed the script each felt some connection to the story, a part that rang true for them.

The project was funded by a New York State education grant and is available to other Holocaust education centers and schools across the country, along with a teacher’s guide. In June, "The Hiding" will be featured at an educational conference at Israel’s Yad Vashem. For students, Gisser says, "The Hiding" is a way to bring a piece of the museum to them.

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