|Some members of the cast of “Clara’s Story.” The girl in orange is Talia Barnesh of Teaneck, who plays Clara. jeanette friedman
It’s a rite of passage for Yavneh Academy’s eighth-graders that is now in its 30th year: creating and performing an original Holocaust-themed play before hundreds of people.
More than 1,400 people attended two performances of “Hiding the Hellers” last week presented by Yavneh’s 80 graduating middle-school students. Based on the book “Clara’s Story,” by Holocaust survivor Clara Heller Isaacman as told to Joan Adess Grossman, the play told of the Heller family and their trials and tribulations as they faced almost certain death from betrayers and Nazis in Antwerp, Belgium. By the end of the play, the head of the family had been murdered by a trusted colleague in the diamond business and Heshie, the oldest son, had died in a forced labor camp very near the end of the war.
The play was preceded by a traditional Holocaust candlelighting ceremony with three generations of survivor families and a double recitation of the El Moleh Rachamim prayer – one for the Torah the school rescued from the Nazi warehouses in Prague and one for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Both performances were in the Paramus High School auditorium, courtesy of the Paramus Board of Education. The morning performance was held for students from various local schools – the Paramus middle school, two local Solomon Schechters, Yeshivat Noam, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, and Yavneh’s own sixth- and seventh-graders. The evening program was for parents and extended family members, including Holocaust survivors who came to see their grandchildren perform.
“This is a really meaningful experience for me,” Malki Infield of Bergenfield told the Standard shortly before going on stage. “I learned a lot about our Jewish history and heritage, and I also now understand how hard it was for my grandmother to survive. She is my inspiration.”
Yavneh has been a pioneer in Holocaust education. It was one of the first Jewish day schools in America to tackle the difficult topic.
“We continue to passionately educate the next generation about the lessons of the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, the school’s principal. “Unfortunately, we know that the evils of anti-Semitism continue to exist around the world. One need only look at recent events in Israel to be reminded of this reality. Meanwhile, we bear witness as evil dictators around the world continue to persecute their own people.
“In the 21st century, the issue of abolishing hate is not only a Jewish one, but one that impacts all of humanity, so Yavneh’s goal is to equip its students with the capacity and compassion to respond to hate of any kind. That is why our school was especially thrilled to include 370 eighth-graders from the Paramus school district, along with many children from local yeshivot, to see our production this year,” he said.
Barbara Rubin, the assistant principal, watched with visible pride as excited students congregated in little groups before the performance. She said the children made a special effort to honor those murdered in the Holocaust and those who survived. “Our students truly embody the lives they represented on that stage, allowing for the ultimate Kiddush HaShem,” sanctification of God’s name.
Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, who directed the play along with Dominique Cieri, said “Hiding the Hellers” captured several themes that emerge from Holocaust education: “The angst, the bewildering dilemma, and the challenge of finding refuge amidst German occupation; the courage and resilience of the Belgian underground in fighting German oppression; the resolve of at least some Jews to maintain a traditional Jewish life even in wartime Europe.
“Finally, the play makes clear that cooperation was possible when Jews were allowed to resist together with countrymen who were committed to German defeat. Belgian Jews faced significant anti-Semitism in their home country. But the anti-German nature of native Walloons,” a French-speaking people in Belgium, “and others opened the door to shared resistance and survival for thousands of Jews,” he said.
The director was proud of his actors: “The students acted with panache,” he said, “with impressive ability, and they did so at such a young age, pulling off at a portrayal of the pain and the triumph of Jews during the horrible period of history.”
The student playwrights were Jacob Bach, Corey Berman, Helene Brenenson, Benjy Dukas, Jordan Farbowitz, Esti Ness, Ora Rogovin, Jenny Rosen and Maxine Yurowitz.