Yavneh play honors Danish rescuers
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Yavneh play honors Danish rescuers

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The performers gather at the finale. Ben Katz, who portrayed Nathan Bamberger, is third from left. Esther Kruman, center, with hat, portrayed Ina Haxen, who helped to save many Danish Jews. Bob Kolb

The Danes defied the Nazis and stood up for their Jewish countrymen more than a half-century ago. But last week in Paramus, a crew of eighth-graders from Yavneh Academy brought the story to life, reminding their audience to rise up against evil and defend the oppressed.

Ben Katz, 13, portrayed Nathan Bamberger, a Danish teenager who was saved by his gentile neighbors. Ben said he had been looking forward to participating in the eighth-grade Holocaust play, a tradition at the school for many years. “Rowing to Freedom” – the title of this year’s play – was worth the wait, he said, describing it as an uplifting story about goodness.

“When Bamberger’s family heard the Germans were going to arrest the Jews, non-Jewish people hid them in their home, ” Katz said. “Then a local fisherman rowed them across the river to Sweden for free. After the war, the Bambergers returned to Denmark and found their home exactly as they left it, which is miraculous.”

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Rabbi Nathan Bamberger, whose rescue by a Danish couple was portrayed in the Yavneh play, shows appreciation to the students.

The play was particularly meaningful to him because he was able to meet the real Nathan Bamberger, who attended the performance. The students gave him and his brothers – who were also in the audience – a standing ovation. “I was honored to meet him,” said Ben. “It was amazing that I got to meet my character. I shook his hand. I will never forget that.”

His classmate, Esther Kruman, played Ina Haxen, a Danish woman who helped transport Jews to Sweden. “She saw these Jews who were so miserable and wanted to help them,” said Esther. “We were all amazed to learn how the Danes really stood up for all the Jews. If everybody at that time had acted this way, there might not have been a Holocaust.”

The Holocaust play has been an integral part of the eighth-grade Jewish history curriculum at Yavneh for 33 years, said Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, author of “The War Against God and His People” (Feldheim/Targum 2000) and the director of Holocaust studies at Yavneh. “There are so many reasons the Holocaust play is important – experientially, educationally, and Jewishly,” he said. “They learn about history in a concrete way. Their acting talent comes out. The class comes together in a beautiful way.”

“This was a positive story about the power of human goodness,” he added. “The Bamberger siblings … were stunned to see themselves onstage, and for the students it was immensely powerful.”

A group of 12 students wrote the script under the direction of playwright Dominique Cieri, who has been working with Yavneh ever since the school was awarded a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts 14 years ago. (Now the parents fund the production.) Cieri taught the students basic script-writing skills but the work was their own, said Burstein, the play’s producer.

Every student in the eighth grade participates in the play. On the day of the performance, Burstein said, “It hits them that they are playing historic roles. Some of them express disbelief that they are a part of this piece of history. Some of them express gratitude that they are able to play the role of that person.”

Barbara Rubin, assistant principal for middle school general studies, praised Burstein as a teacher and director. “He impacts every eighth-grader,” she said. “He teaches them Holocaust history and the stories of survival. They love him. Many schools put on plays related to the Holocaust. But this is unique because the kids are involved in the writing and the production. They all take part in it and they all shine. The best part is the day of the play when they really become the characters they play. You see the kavod [respect] they give the play. They understand that through the play we keep this memory of the Holocaust alive.”

Zack Katz, Benjamin’s twin brother, had the demanding task of playing the part of a Nazi. He admitted that he found it difficult at first to portray the enemy. Burstein met with him privately to thank him for taking on such a difficult role. The teacher also stressed that he should not take the role lightly. “It wasn’t easy,” said Zack. “I had to deport three people and shoot one person. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. I took it very seriously.” In the end, he said, it was worth the price. “I learned more about the Holocaust than I ever knew.”

With all the rehearsals and the weighty subject matter, the play strengthened the students’ sense of camaraderie, said Ben. “I think this really brought us together. People who weren’t friends before were all hanging out together and we all got to know each other. It made the grade feel more connected.”

Esther added, “I think there are a lot of people in my grade who were really transformed in this whole process. People who were really fooling around became very serious. Everyone was very into the play. I feel like I got a lot closer to people. I am so glad our school does this.”

“We will remember how the Danes stood up for their Jewish neighbors,” said Ben. “It’s a lesson to us that we should stand up to help people in need wherever they are.”

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