A Brilliant Day: A Dutch Woman’s Courageous Travels in Nazi Occupied Holland

by Peter R. LeGrand

Story Summary:

This story weaves present day observations with the true accounts of Peter’s grandmother, a Dutch Jew, and the incredible journeys she went through during the time of Nazi occupied Holland during World War II. As Peter takes a bike ride along Chicago’s lakefront, observing the ease and comfort of modern day life, he remembers his grandmother’s stories of the dangers of riding a bicycle across rural Holland to secure food for her husband and children. The contrasts of modern living are highlighted against the fears of appearing in public as a Jew during the war.

For a print friendly version, click here:  A-Brilliant-Day-A-Dutch-Womans-Courageous-Travels-in-Nazi-Occupied-Holland

Discussion questions:

  1. It has been discussed that current U.S. politics have re-awakened themes related to the Holocaust. Some of these themes are, but are not limited to: racial profiling, racial prejudice, and racial superiority. In light of the story presented here, do you agree with this premise? Why or why not?
  2. How are different groups in the United States classified through stereotypes? How do stereotypes exert power just as the Star of David was used as a means of control?
  3. The Germans have not been the only country to use racial profiling in their history. For example, during World War II, the United States employed internment camps for people of Japanese descent while the United States fought a war against the country of Japan. This resulted in a sudden and severe segregation of Japanese American citizens during the war.  Discuss what factors might go into a country’s or society’s decision making in using such tactics. How can we guard against such things? Are tactics like this being used today?
  4. Discuss the relevance of the Holocaust experience to modern life today. Points to consider: A. Is a modern-day Holocaust possible? B. If so, how would this take place? C. Could modern technology (Cellular phones, Internet, etc.,) contribute to or prevent such a reoccurrence? D.  Is the war on terror an influence here? E. Has a modern-day Holocaust already occurred, or is one occurring in the world now?
  5. Are poverty and lack of education factors in race relations? Why or why not? What factors contribute to negative race relations and even genocide? What factors contribute to positive race relations?
  6. Do you see solutions to problems raised by the questions above? In whatever way that is most powerful to you, (Art, music, writing, story telling, etc..,) present what you see as a problem and any solutions you see. Try to back up your solutions factually if possible.

Resources:

The Missing Stories by Elise Dubois, Copyright 2008, by GigaBoek.nl
A Brilliant Day by Peter R. LeGrand, Copyright 2016.

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Jewish American/Jews

Full Transcript:

My name is Peter Robert LeGrand and this is a story that I’ve been lucky enough to tell about my amazing family.

It’s a brilliant summer day in Chicago in 2016. And when I look down, I can see my feet turning the pedals on my bike in a satisfying rhythm as we make our way down the lakefront trail. I’m with a group of friends and as we go, we can see groups of picnickers are set up along the lake with their grills. There’s endless mounds of cooking meat and other foods and the smell is so potent you can just about wrap yourself in it. It’s like a coat of flavor that we are slowly riding past as we go. We hear music of every kind as we moved down the bike trail. And after a little while, we stop for a few minutes near some folks who are playing Samba music. One of our riders and his girlfriend jump off their bikes and they start dancing to the music, immediately. Moving back and forth, arms and hips, and music all coming together in one continuous flow. After a few moments of this, they jump back on their bikes and off we go down the lakefront trail.

My thoughts start turning to my grandmother. Who, some 70 years ago, took a series of bike rides of her own during the war. I recall her telling me about these rides and thinking to myself, what an amazingly, brave thing to do. But she, herself, said it really wasn’t a question of courage. It was just something that you had to do. It was winter. The last winter of the war and life was very hard. The Germans had taken over almost every aspect of life in Nazi occupied Holland. It was very difficult to come by almost anything there. And as a result, even food was very difficult to get. That last winter of the war was called De Honger Winter or The Winter of Hunger. As I said, food was very hard to get. My mother used to speak about how my grandmother would take a small tin of coffee, one that we might use just in a week’s time, and make it last for months. And by the end of it, she said, it will be nothing more than brown colored water. My grandparents received ration coupons for food during the war. This included bread. My grandfather used to say that they chopped up straw and baked it right into the bread. It was so bad. My mother recalls that the straw would even stick in your throat when you ate it.

Some 12 miles away from where my grandparents and my mother lived was another family member who was a baker. My grandmother set out one day on her bike to retrieve and get some bread for her family and two other families. She hid when she saw German patrols. The Germans would use almost any pretense to arrest you. And they all lived in constant fear and awareness of curfews. And just if they were violated, you could be arrested and taken to jail. Simply walking down the street was cause for fear. But on this trip, she was able to get some bread for herself and families and return home safely. A few months later, she set out on another ride farther away with more risk. This time my grandmother was asked to take seed supplies to another family who was also, of another family member, who was also a baker.

As dangerous as it was for her to do this, it had become even more dangerous for my grandfather to be out in public. By this time, the Germans had been rounding up all able bodied men to help in labor camps promoting the Germans war effort. It was dangerous in German occupied countries for non-Jewish men. Even more dangerous, at times, than for Jewish people. Labor camps were places that Germans had started to produce war materials to support their war efforts and being in one of these camps was known to be almost as dangerous as being a Jew. My grandfather, on my father’s side, was actually taken to one of these camps and he was only one of 11 people who was able to escape. And he only escaped because he bribed his way out of this camp. So while my grandmother was out trying to get food for my family, my grandfather was avoiding being captured by hiding in a dirt-filled space under the floorboards of the living room in their house.

All the time I was growing up, I never heard my grandfather speak of these things. He was a very quiet, thoughtful man, who never really made a fuss about much of anything. I heard all of these stories from my mother. I try to imagine him, underneath the floorboards of his living room. Not making a motion, not able to hear anything, only vague noises from maybe my mother walking to and from the front window where she was to look-out for German soldiers. He couldn’t see anything and he had to lay in this unnerving quiet. Was this simply a prelude to some shouting and banging on the front door announcing the arrival of German soldiers?  What would they think if they saw that there was a small child, my mother, at home with no parents around?  Would he have to listen to the Germans searching his house? Would it be worse to lay in the dark, not being able to see your enemy or would it be better to be out in the open to see him coming? On top of all this laying in the dark, worrying about his wife who is out in the world. In a dangerous world that they lived in with no peace of mind for any of them. I now understand all the better that my mother used to say after Hitler, “Everything else was easier.”

So I was riding along on that summer day in Chicago, thinking of my grandmother as she rode trying to find food when I passed a woman who was guiding a decked out bike with cargo bags, a red bike. And she’s talking on her cell phone and I can hear her as I ride slowly by.  “Yeah. Going to go to a party later. Maybe stop and get some wine and cheese. I’m thinking about going to a yoga class, maybe have a nap.”  My grandmother’s bike not only didn’t have cargo bar bags it didn’t even have two good tires. After the successful trip said she had taken, she set out on another trip. Even farther away on a borrowed bike.

This bike had one good tire, the other tire being what was called the hard tire. It had a garden hose wrapped around the rim with just pieces of wire to hold it in place. After some four hours of riding on this bike with one good tire, she arrived at a cousin’s house out in the country. In addition to the cousin’s family that were in the house, there was another five people who were either Dutch Resistance or Jews or maybe both. They were all in hiding in that house and they were all wanted by the Germans. My grandmother was invited to stay for dinner. And some 40 years later, she wrote in her diary about this meal that she had. We had delicious tomato soup with meat and meat balls and a pot roast and stewed apples and really good boiled potatoes with delicious brown gravy. And afterwards for dessert, we had rice pudding with delicious berry sauce. “I had not eaten like that in years,” she wrote in her diary.

My mother and father used to talk frequently about food after the war. After the war, the allied forces dropped food from the air to get food in quickly to the people who had been liberated. My mother used to talk about the bread that was dropped in. And she would close her eyes and she put her hand over her chest and she would talk about it. And I could see that she was back in that exact moment reliving the taste of that fresh bread that was dropped to them after the war. And when I read my grandmothers diary, I can tell that she was reliving that same tomato soup meal that she had as well.

That summer day when we were about 10 miles from downtown Chicago, we stopped at a rest stop along the lake where there was a snack bar. And I stopped and I looked at the menu, which is painted in big cartoon, almost garish, colors. There’s roast beef sandwiches, and there’s Polish hotdogs, and there’s onions, and there’s French fries, and there’s nachos, and there’s potato chips, and ice cream. And I watch the kids come up to the snack bar and grab their treats and eagerly run back for more playtime on the beach as they’re eating.

After that dinner of tomato soup that my grandmother had, she was given a large bundle of food: rice, butter, flour, things that they couldn’t get in the city.  And on the way home, she stopped and traded a pair of my grandfather’s pants for some wheat that she carried home in her backpack. After my grandmother pedaled home that day, she would… worried that she would not make it home in time for curfew that the Nazis set. If she was discovered, the German patrols were known to attack and steal and take everything you had. There was no fear of reprisals against the soldiers. But luckily, and astoundingly, after some 50 miles of riding, she made it home that day before the curfew. She and all of her precious packages of food were safe. My grandmother took that same trip several times before the end of the war. Riding slowly, with one good bike tire, on a borrowed bike, carrying precious food home but carrying much worry as well.

I rode some more that day under that beautiful blue sky and finally at the end of the lakefront trail, I said goodbye to my friends and I turned myself north to head home onto the train. I’d ridden that day about the same distance that my grandmother rode. But I would never match the true distance that she rode that day.  She wrote that she admired the bravery of others that she met on her rides. That all the while, while she’s dodging German patrols and bombings from the British, and all the while avoiding patrols and ducking into the woods if she was seen. Racing against the clock. And every moment of her rides was the one thing that set her apart from all others, that she did all of these rides with the bright, yellow Star of David sewn to her coat for all to see. I pedaled home, each turn of the wheels along the path, every turn, a reminder of those long ago bike rides and the woman who described herself as a woman of little courage.

Remember the Holocaust

images The Holocaust : National Days of Remembrance

The US Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

RaceBridges remembers the Victims of the Nazi Holocaust in World War II Europe. We remember too the aging survivors of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, various faith groups, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi Germany.

The theme of of the 2011 Days of Remembrance is Justice and Accountability in the Face of Genocide : What Have We Learned ?

RaceBridges invites you to listen to these four original short stories told by professional storytellers. These stories remember the Holocaust,  and are about people who escaped from the Holocaust and their enduring witness . . .

 

Use these stories for personal reflection or for student and group discussion.

Further Information :
http://www.ushmm.org/remembrance/dor/

KEEP THE PEACE: Small changes for a big difference


As one year ends and another starts anew …
Here is a free gift for you during these
December days . . .
A RaceBridges unit called KEEP THE PEACE!

 

“Keep the Peace!candles32-138x300
Preparing for Conflict, Dealing with Anger and Creating Communities of Harmony”
A Teacher Resource

We celebrate the Holidays with the feasts of Hannukah, Christmas and Kwanza.We mark a brand New Year with resolutions for our students, our school and ourselves.

 

These occasions express the longing for renewal hope and peace.
We invite you as a teacher, leader or parent to consider the ways of peacemaking..

 

Creating safe, welcoming communities is the job of the entire school – teachers, administration and students..

 

In facing this challenge even small changes can make a big difference.This resource suggests some mini lesson plans and ideas for “keeping the peace” in your classroom or school.

 

Activities can be done one at a time or put together into a longer event
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Making A Difference This New Year

At about this time of year, our New Year’s resolutions can begin to wane. Our doubts creep in and we can begin to think we’re too insignificant to make a difference in our own lives, let alone anyone else’s. However, add a little imagination and who knows what we can come up with? Here are three examples.

Two neighbors in a small American town far removed from the Middle East were discussing the tragedies taking place in those countries. They came to the conclusion that despite being so far from these tragedies, there had to be something that they could do, and voila! They came up with the idea to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth to their north suburban neighborhood for a program of four weeks of peace and fellowship. That program ran for three summers, touching the lives of over 40 young people.

In another example, a doctor relayed a story of how one day – while he was in the middle of surgery! – he realized that he and the doctor assisting him were both presidents of their respective religious congregations, one a mosque and one a synagogue. They decided at that moment to bring their congregations together to create a dialog between them. The two congregations had several surprisingly open and heartfelt meetings, visiting each other’s places of worship and learning about each other’s religious and cultural heritages. This interfaith work has continued in various other forms into the present.

The third example centers on a leadership program for high school students, in which  students were tasked with the creation of service projects. One year, some students came up with the idea of holding a Senior Prom in which they would invite Seniors – that is, senior citizens – and hold an intergenerational dance.

Over the backyard fence, in the school or work hallways or, even over surgery, it’s so easy to complain about what isn’t working. But these people asked instead, “What can we do?”

This is the time of year when New Year’s Resolutions start to fall away. But, maybe, our ideas of what we could accomplish or inspire this year haven’t been large enough to excite and motivate us.

Ask yourself, “How can I turn my frustrations and concerns into a force for good? How can I make a difference in the world this new year?”

TURNING DREAMS INTO DEEDS : DR. KING

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES

TO HONOR DR. KING’S BIRTHDAY

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“We must learn to live together as
brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.”Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Continue the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
with these lesson plans and resources…

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VOICES FOR CHANGE

Values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A new Streamlined Lesson for your
classroom exploring
Dr. King’s message of protest.

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10 Ways to Educate for Anti-Racism
and to Celebrate Diversity

 > Download now

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What’s Racism Got To Do with Me?

> Download now

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Seeking Harmony : Starting &
Sustaining a Diversity Club for
High School Students

> Download now

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Creating a Diversity Session for
your Faculty : An Introduction

> Download now

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Giving it Back: Passing it On

>Download now


VISIT RACEBRIDGES VIDEOS FOR MORE
ON DR. KING’S LEGACY 

In remembering the day Martin Luther King, Jr. died, African-American storyteller Lyn Ford recognizes how people of different backgrounds can share a vision for unity and peace. And as Americans seek to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in January, Lyn’s story also gives us an opportunity to explore the relationship between Dr. King and the Jewish people.

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Feathers in the Wind: A Jewish-American’s Story

feathersby Storyteller Susan Stone

Feathers in the Wind: A Jewish American’s Story invites students and teachers of all religious and cultural backgrounds to reflect on their own lives and to explore the impact of gossip and hurtful words.

This lesson plan “unpacks” stories told by Susan Stone, a professional storyteller. This story and lesson plan can be used in one or two sessions.

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feathers_banner

“…Your words are like feathers in the wind.

Once they’re gone you can’t get them back and you don’t know where they’ve gone to.”

susanstone

 

Feathers in the Wind: A Jewish American’s Story invites students and teachers of all religious and cultural backgrounds to reflect on their own lives and to explore the impact of gossip and hurtful words. This lesson plan “unpacks” stories told by Susan Stone, a professional storyteller. This story and lesson plan can be used in one or two sessions.

This unit provides some ways to engage diverse students with traditional folk tales and contemporary stories.

  • Through personal reflection, peer discussion, and the development of collective strategies for making a difference, the exercises included here explore our use of language and encourage us to stand up for our beliefs.
  • The unit seeks to promote a culture of empathy and compassion for the differences and similarities among us.

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Lesson Plan

Download the Feathers in the Wind lesson plan (PDF)

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Story Excerpts

The following MP3 tracks are story excerpts for use with the Feathers in the Wind lesson plan. Please note that these excerpts are protected by copyright and are exclusively for educational use.

Excerpt #1 — Track One — 12:18 minutes

Excerpt #2 — Track Two– 8:58 minutes

Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts?  Click here for directions.

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About Storyteller Susan Stone

 

Susan Stone has been sharing her tales for over twenty years for children and adults all over the USA.  She teaches storytelling to teachers at National-Louis University, IL, and has been honored with many awards for her CDs of Jewish stories for children.  She loves telling stories from many cultures, but especially loves sharing stories from the Jewish tradition.  Susan  believes that hearing each other’s stories enables us to nurture compassion for others, and perhaps heal ourselves as well.

www.susanstone-storyteller.com
susan@susanstone-storyteller.com

A Celebration of Unity Day and Courage

As the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draw near, we celebrate Judaism’s rich history of storytelling through the reflections and memories of Jewish-American Storytellers, and stories about the legacy of the Jewish people.

Feathers in the Wind: A Jewish-American’s StoryA lesson plan with audio story excerpts featuring Jewish American Storyteller Susan Stone

 

Short story videos from RaceBridgesVideos.com

My Father’s Race Against Discrimination: Anti-Semitism in the 1930s Track and Field

 

Story Summary:

 Carol’s father is told he is not permitted to run on his college track team at the University of Pennsylvania. Two Jewish runners in the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not permitted to participate in the 400 relays. All three are Jewish and all three have the same coach.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: My-Fathers-Race-Against-Discrimination-Anti-Semitism-in-the-1930s-Track-and-Field

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the story, Jesse Owens spoke up and told the coach, “Coach, I’ve won my 3 gold medals, I’m tired. Let Marty and Sam run.”  The coach pointed a finger at him and said, “You’ll do as you’re told.”  Why do you think the coach wanted the Black men to run in the Olympics but not the Jewish athletes? By deciding not to let Marty and Sam run, of what do you think Coach Robertson was afraid or resisting?
  2. What could Stanley’s teammates have said or done to enable Stanley to race in all the track meets in which he was not allowed to run? Would you have been willing to stand up against discrimination even if it meant not running for the team?
  3. The ending quote in the story by William Lloyd Garrison was important to Stanley.  How do you think its importance related to the discrimination he encountered?
  4. Do you think what happened to Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller could ever happen again in today’s Olympics?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Carol Kaufman-Kerman. It was 1927 when my father was nicknamed Speedy. Speedy Stan. Now he got tagged Speedy for being the slowest runner at Camp Lenox. Camp Lenox is a boys’ camp in the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. Oh, it could have been worse. He could have been nicknamed “Wizzy” or “Leaky.” He peed in his bed every night. I mean, he was five years old. And so, every morning his counselor would wash out his sheets, hang ’em out to dry on the front porch, then drag out that mattress for everybody to see in camp. My father was humiliated. He was humiliated; he wanted to keep this a secret. He just wanted his parents to come, take him back home to Brooklyn. I mean, gosh, eight weeks at summer camp for a five-year old. It’s like a sentence.

Now my dad didn’t know it at the time that he’d be feeling, later on in his life, these same icky feelings of feeling different. Back in the 1930s and the 1940s, anti-Semitism was on the rise, not just in Europe. It was also on the rise in America as well. Now this was 12 years after my father was nicknamed Speedy for being so slow. He actually had earned a spot on the track team of the University of Pennsylvania. But unlike the other player… unlike the other runners, he was relegated to the bench. He was never put in any meets at all and it wasn’t because he was slow. It was actually… he was very, very fast and everybody knew it. His coach knew it, his teammates knew it. He more than proved himself during practice. But it was because he was Jewish. Now his coach knew that he was fast but his coach didn’t want this Jewish boy to shine.

His coach was none other than Lawson Robertson. Now Lawson Robertson was the United States Olympic track coach. The one that took the track team to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a very controversial Olympics. It was where Hitler had grandstanded his, his strong Aryan German athletes. And we had two runners, the American team had two Jewish runners on their track team. There was Marty Glickman and there was Sam Stoller and, uh, they were slated to run in the 400-relay. A day before the race, Coach Lawson Robertson and the other coaches, well, pulled all the kids in.

And he said, “Ah, there’s going to be a change. We have to pull out Marty and Sam; they can’t run in the 400. We, we ha… we’re doing this because we heard reports from the Germans. They said that they are practicing in secret and that they’re saving their top, top sprinters for this 400-race so we, we have to pull out Marty and Sam. I mean, the reasoning just… it didn’t make sense. I mean, Jesse Owens and Ra… Ralph Metcalfe were put in instead of Sam and Marty. And, granted, we all know that Jesse Owens, I mean, he ordered… already won at that point, the gold for the 100 and the gold for the 200 so he was fast. Nobody could be faster than that. But there was another reason he, he wanted to put in this other player from the team. But this runner clocked consistently slower times than Glickman and Stoller. So, the whole thing didn’t make sense.

Now Jesse Owens, at the meeting, he spoke up. He said, “Ah, come on, coaches. Let them run. They’ve been working at this for over a month. I mean, I’ve already gotten three golds. I’m tired. Let them have their chance.”

And the coach said to him, “You’ll do as you’re told.”

And so, Glickman and Stoller, they didn’t run. And, of course, the, uh, the Americans came in first. And, well, Glickman and Stoller, they knew why they weren’t running because they were Jews and they knew that Coach Robertson wanted to spare the fear or the embarrassment of having two Jewish boys up on the winning podium. Now if my father hadn’t told me about his experience at University of Pennsylvania, I may not even have known about Coach Robertson during the 1936 Olympics or maybe what I would have thought that it was just a one-shot deal and that he had redeemed himself afterwards.

But three years later, my father was on the team and he wasn’t allowed to one… run in one meet. It was the day of the Penn Relays, the big, big race and the coach’s star runner got injured. Coach looked at my father. He said, “All right, Kaufman, off the bench. You’re running today.”

My father, he knew what opportunity this was. He knew that this was a, a moment that he could prove himself. And I have to think that he was also running, not just for himself, but he was running for Glickman; he was running for Stoller. He was, he was running for all those Jewish athletes that had qualified for the 1936 Olympics but it had boycotted them. Now none of the students or the community knew who my father was. He was, he was a benchwarmer and they were baffled why the… they would even, eh, let him run. But there he was and he had his chance and he got set on the mark. And when that gun went off, my father shot out of there.

He was fast; he was a sprinter. He was really good. And he took off and he was in the lead and all he wanted to do is win that race. I mean, his fraternity brothers showed up to encourage him… and the ladies from the sorority. But he wasn’t thinkin ’about them; he wasn’t thinkin’ about the coach. He was just thinkin’ about winning. He was thinking about beating the best time and he was thinking about breaking racial barriers. And so, his biggest contender was another guy from an Ivy League school. And as they were coming into the finish line, they were neck and neck. And then at the finish line, against the Harvard resentment of Coach Robert Lawson (Lawson Robertson), my father won. And all the reporters from the Philadelphia papers, they came running up to him and they said, “Who are you? Where did you come from? What’s your name?”

And then they went over to coach Lawson Robertson and they said, “How come you never played this Kaufman kid before?”

And he looked at them. He stared at them and then he stammered out a bold-faced lie and he said, “Ah, he’s been sick.”

His excuses never got any better than the 1936 Olympics. But after that, my father, well, there were articles in the paper. I mean, the coach had to play him. There was too much pressure from the alumni, from the community. They wanted to see my father run. Now the coach never really did mentor him like the other players.

And my father said, “He never acknowledged me.”

I’d like to end this story with a quote. It’s a quote that my father had taken to memory and he used in his life when he was up against an obstacle or he wanted to encourage us kids. And he’s… he said, “Well, I want to tell you, it’s a, it’s a quote by an American abolitionist. His name is William Lloyd Garrison. And my dad would laugh and say, “That guy, he was really a stubborn guy like your old dad.”

My father’s right. He is stubborn. He’s stubborn and determined to take a nickname like Speedy given to him because he was so slow and to turn it around to be called Speedy because he was so fast. And he’s stubborn and determined and patient to wait for his opportunity to run against discrimination. The quote, “I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard.”

A Window of Beauty: A Story of Courage from the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Nancy tells an excerpt from “A Window of Beauty,” a story inspired by the experiences of a young girl, her remarkable teacher and their secret art classes in the Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. It is a tale of courage, friendship and the power of artistic expression to sustain hope and light the way during the darkest of times.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Window-of-Beauty-A-Story-of-Courage-from-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The story of Friedl and Rutie tells of the deep relationship between teacher and student. One child described the experience of being in Friedl’s secret art classes in the concentration camp at Terezin: “Friedl. We called her Friedl.  Everything was forgotten for a couple of hours. We forgot all the troubles we had.” What was Friedl’s legacy as a teacher? What memorable teacher in your own life was a rescuer or a life changer for you?
  2. How does a human being survive a tragedy such as the Holocaust?
  3. In what way is artistic expression – the creation of poetry, art or music and so forth – a form of resistance against oppression? How does it compare to the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII?

Resources:

  • I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, 2nd edition, 1993.
  • Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker Brandeis and the Children of Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin,
  • Art, Music and Education as Strategies for Survival: Theresienstadt 1941 – 1945 edited by Anne. D. Dutlinger

Themes:

  •  Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Nancy Shapiro-Pikelny. When I was 11 years old, I received this book as a gift. It’s a collection of poetry and art that was done in the concentration camp Terezin. It was created in defiance of Nazi brutality. The name of the book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It was created by children, secretly and courageously. Now in that book there was only a brief mention of a drawing teacher, nothing more. And for years, I wondered who was this brave teacher and who were her students? I recently discovered a story of one student, a girl whose nickname was a Zuti, little rabbit. A name that was lovingly given to her by her friends because of her enormous buck teeth. Her real name was Rutie Shaffner. The Nazi sent Rutie Shaffner to the concentration camp in Terezin.  And she was put in building L-410, room 28, along with many other girls her age. And there, the children suffered from disease and starvation. But Rutie’s life was lifted up out of the horror of the Holocaust through art, because of her teacher an artist. A woman named Friedl Dicker Brandeis.  I want to tell you a story, an excerpt from a story that I call, “A Window Of Beauty,” that I created by gathering remnants of history and also by imagining the missing pieces. Imagining all of the lost threads, in the winter of 1944, in the concentration camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia.

One day Rutie Shaffner decided to go on a hunt to find any art materials that her teacher Friedl could possibly use in their secret art classes. She began her hunt at the first light of dawn. She went into an alley and found a box and she grabbed it away from a rat that was chewing on the corner of it. And in that alley, there was charcoal and string and wire. She filled the box and then she headed out from the alley when she saw, in the distance, a group of Nazi soldiers crossing the street, coming in her direction. She didn’t know what to do, so she slipped into the doorway of a building. She crouched down low. Her heart was pounding. What if they see me? What if they find me here? Well, the building seemed empty and so Rutie dared to go inside. And in that building, Rutie made a wonderful discovery – paper. Paper! Stacks of ledger paper, office paper that had been left in that abandoned building. Rutie filled the box. And when the soldiers had gone, she ran all the way to her building L-410, room 28, up those three flights of stairs and she brought that box of treasures to Friedl. And from the odds and ends in that box, Friedl was able to teach those children the art of collage making. Rutie cut the shapes, and she tore them, pasted it on that ledger paper, and when she had finished, Rutie had created the sunrise in Terezin.

Well, the snows of winter eventually melted. And in the spring the Nazis needed to make a plan – how to fool the International Red Cross. You see, the Red Cross was coming to Terezin in the summer for an inspection. And so, the Nazis needed to make that concentration camp look beautiful for one day – the day of the inspection. And so, the Nazis ordered the Jews to paint the fronts of buildings, to clean up the garbage in the alleys, to build a playground. A playground that would be used for that one day only. The day of the inspection. And the last part of the Nazi plan, so that the Red Cross would not see the overcrowded conditions and Terezin, the Nazis increased the number of transports to the east to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

It was on a Thursday that they posted the next list. And among the 2,000 Jews on that list was Rutie Shaffner, little Zuti, little rabbit. She was only 13 years old. Now nobody, none of the people on the list, knew what it meant to be sent on a transport to the east. And so, they hurried to find anything that they could take with them on the train. A spoon, a tin cup, or a prayer book, a ragged blanket. And there was tremendous commotion and fear as the Nazis called out names and numbers and pushed the Jews into the cattle cars. And there stood little Rutie in that crowd. And she remembered her friends up in room 28. How they had loved her and protected her for the last few years.

She was trembling when she heard Friedl calling her name. And she looked up and saw that Friedl was making her way through the crowd. Friedl came up to her and said, “O,h Rutie, I came to say goodbye and I’m glad I found you. And I want you to take this with you on the train. One of the last drawings you did as my student. Look what a wonderful artist you have become, Rutie.” And when she heard that her face broke wide open into a huge smile those buck teeth in full view.

“No, Friedl, I want you to have the drawing. You keep it.” And Friedl did. Friedl and the girls of room 28 never saw Rutie Shaffner again. She was taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz where she died on May 18th, 1944.

Now in September of that year, Friedl asked a friend of hers to help her fill suitcases with the many drawings collages and paintings from the children that she had saved for the past two years. They filled those suitcases, carried them up to the attic above room 28, and hid them there. In the following month on October 6th, 1944 the Nazis sent Friedl and hundreds and hundreds of children, and women, and men on cattle cars bound for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Their lives ended there but their story did not. Because when the war was over, those suitcases filled with all their artwork… they were discovered, and taken to the Jewish museum in Prague and eventually published some of that artwork was published in this book. Now in the latest edition of this book, there appears Rutie’s sunrise collage. In Hebrew, we say zekher tzadik livrakha, may their memories be for a blessing. And I hope that we can make their lives a blessing by telling these stories about real people who had names and faces and a love for beauty and creativity. People like Friedl and Rutie.

The Spark of the Jew

jerry-story.
Over centuries, Jews have created a vibrant folklore—a rich body of stories that reflect the humor, heart, wisdom, and pain of a remarkable group of people on the path of an extraordinary history. Keeping alive this tradition are modern storytellers like Gerald Fierst, whose stories speak to the wonder, joy and sorrow of growing up Jewish.

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For Fierst, the approach of the High Holy Days always stirs vivid memories of childhood. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, a day on which Jews look back over the past year and forward to the year to come. It’s followed a week later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As a child, Gerry hated these “Days of Awe,” which required fasting, prayer, and owning up to one’s failings, petty jealousies and transgressions.

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But at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn—the shofar—is blown in the synagogue to announce the new year. With that, the slate is wiped clean and the fast is broken.

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The sound of the ram’s horn inspires in Fierst a powerful sense of wonder, and a deep feeling of connection to the lives and faith of his ancestors. “It sounds the sounds of the ages. It’s the sound of Moses coming down the mountain, the sound of the children of Israel leaving Egypt, the sound of Abraham, the father of all three of our religions.”

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The High Holy Days also bring memories of loss and sorrow. Each year when the new year comes, Fierst attends the memorial service for the dead in remembrance of his mother. Again, he waits for the ram’s horn to be blown. And that sound calls to mind a conversation Fierst had with his mother when he was a little boy. He wondered aloud what happens to people when they die, “what happens to the life force, the energy?” His mother answered, “A little bit of us goes to everyone we love.”

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And that reminds Fierst of a Yiddish expression: “the spark of the Jew.” Though he may not be an observant Jew or follow all 613 commandments, “the spark that my parents put inside of me, it lives.”

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Storytelling, according to Hasidic teaching, is a holy activity equal to Torah study or prayer. For storytellers like Gerald Fierst, it’s a way to retain the heart of traditions, and to stay connected to his ancestors, faith and community.
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A Yiddish King Lear

 

Story Summary:

 A Yiddish King Lear is about hard choices, hopes, dreams, racial persecution, and love! It tells of the moment Judith realized that her grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, an actor in the Yiddish Theatre at the turn of the 20th Century was her role model as a Storyteller. Remembering her grandfather’s background, gave her the courage to pursue her dreams. A Yiddish King Lear is set in the emotional, artistic and actual geographic crossroad of Second Avenue in New York City in the early 1900’s and in the 1970’s.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Yiddish-King-Lear

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who in your family is an unsung hero or heroine? 
How has this person influenced your life and/or helped you make important decisions? What might you like to learn more about this person?
  2. If you have ever moved, gone to a new school, relocated to a new country or community, what have you brought with you? Why are these things important? These things can be memories, values, traditions – intangibles. A few special objects are often passed down from one generation to another and are cherished.
Does your family have any of these items? If so, tell their stories! 
You can also discuss what you left behind and how that affects you.
  3. Describe a time when you have either experienced feeling like “the other” or perhaps excluded others. What prompted these situations?

Resources:

Themes:

  •  Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Jewish Americans/Jews

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Judith Heineman. Did you ever want something so badly that you were willing to give up everything for it? This is an excerpt of a longer piece about my grandfather called, “A Yiddish King Lear.”

When I was eight, I played Snow White and the prince refused to kiss me. I lay there waiting, my heart palpitating, “Psst. Kenny you’re supposed to kiss me, now.” I lay there on a hard, narrow, wooden bench taken from the seating area in the social hall. “Psst, Kenny, now.”

Well, I may not have known what the word “improvised” meant, but I arose from my poisoned slumber and I chased Kenny Eppstein, the cutest 9-year-old in camp, around the wishing well. My Prince Charming was not escaping without a kiss and he kissed me on the cheek. This Snow White took place in a summer bungalow colony, in the Catskills, in New York. And my grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, who was about 75 at the time, was taking care of me. My mother worked in the city and came up on weekends. We lived in the first bungalow, a tiny unwinterized, rented cabin. And we came home for lunch. And after rehearsal, I was so excited that I ran into the house and I said, “Grandpa, Grandpa, when I grow up, I am going to be an actress.”

He turned from the stove with a blackened frying pan in one hand, a dish rag in the other. And he just looked at me, with the strangest look. He didn’t say anything. And then he turned back to burning my lunch.

That weekend my mother came up to see me as Snow White. And I said, “Mom, when I grow up I’m going to be an actress.”

“What do you want to be an actress for? You’ll never make any money as an actress. Forget this narish, this foolishness, and do something practical. Be a teacher.”

Something must have penetrated because I did become a teacher. I became a high school English and journalism teacher in New York City. And I was teaching near the East Village, in the West Village. The heyday of the off, and off, off Broadway movement. So, I would teach during the day, and I would audition after work. And I would perform in strange places, in storefronts, and black boxes, and sub-sub-basements. And so, I would perform and I would think, “Why am I doing this? This is so difficult. Why am I hitting my head against the wall? I have no role models. There’s nobody in my family who is an actor. What’s possessing me like a dybbuk or a demon or something, where I have to do this?”

And there I was on Second Avenue, New York City, going into a sub-sub-basement of an experimental theater, and my foot froze on the stair. How could I have forgotten? How could I have forgotten? And his voice came flooding back to me. My grandfather, Oscar Markowitz, he of the burning lunches, wasn’t always Oscar Markowitz. He was Oschar Marko, an actor in the Yiddish theater from Romania. And he wasn’t just any actor, he was a very good actor. He had to have been a good actor because he was sponsored by the Rothschild banking family, the banking family that dominated all the capitals of Europe in the 19th century. The Rothschilds were sponsoring Jewish actors to escape from Romania, to travel across Europe, and come to the United States. And it wasn’t just an international tour. No. They were helping them to escape the religious persecution, the poverty, and the bloody pogroms that were plaguing Eastern Europe and Romania at that time, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, a bloody pogrom, a government sanctioned race riot against Jews.

What kind of future did he have? And in 1893, when he was 12 years old, laws were passed that said no Jewish child can have a public education anymore. And then, as if overnight, new laws were passed, that if you didn’t have government rights, and Jews didn’t, the men couldn’t pursue careers. And 40 percent of them lost their jobs. But even still, how could he possibly leave everything that he had known, his family and his country for an uncertain future? But he was an actor and he came to the United States and finally found his way down, down, downtown to Second Avenue, New York City, the home of the Yiddish theater.

And his voice came flooding back to me singing in a language that I didn’t understand. And he said he was singing King Lear in Yiddish. Now, you have to understand, this was not Shakespeare’s King Lear. This was a Goldfadden King Lear. This was a guilty King Lear. This was a suffering King Lear. This was a Jewish King Lear. And when immigrants came to the theater, they didn’t sit back to just be entertained. Oh no. The theater was a temple of learning, this was education. They would grab their children and they’d say, “See, see that man suffering on stage? That’s what you’re doing to us, you ungrateful first generation American children. Can’t you respect us? Respect the old ways? Respect our traditions?”

And there, on the Lower East Side, he met a landsman, a neighbor, a friend. Her name was Dora. And they fell in love and he asked her to marry him. And she went to her father and said, “Papa, Papa, this is Oschar Marko and he’s asked me to marry him. He’s an actor. A very good actor. An actor in the Yiddish theater.”

And curses in Yiddish spewed forth from her father’s mouse, mouth and he said, “An actor! No daughter of mine is going to marry an actor! An actor is a gun of a thief a no-goodnik! The lowest of the low! The devil!”  “And you,” he said to my grandfather, “if you want to marry my daughter, you have to get a respectable profession!”

What could he do? How could he choose between his acting that had saved his life and the woman he loved? That would be the only family he would know in this new world. Would King Lear have to be silenced? And he chose. And he became a respectable and often unemployed house painter. Adorning other people’s dreams while designs for his own lay tattered in a Sienna portfolio, a still life unframed with forged signatures. And he was bitter and frustrated for the rest of his life except…when he would sing to me in a language I didn’t understand. And I would sit by his knee and he would hold court in his third floor, rent controlled, Bronx apartment. And I would sit at his knee. And his chest would rise and he would sit on his throne, a gray brocaded armchair with fringes along the bottom, and his chest would rise, his hands would rail to the ceiling, still steady in his 90’s. And he would become a young man of 19 again in the year 1900. The dawn of a new century with all the promise of anything he could have imagined before him. And he would sing all the frustration and pain and sorrow of King Lear. And, although, I did not know what each word meant individually, his song still sings inside me in mame loshn, a mother tongue, and needs no translation.

Who is a Friend? German-Jewish Reconciliation After the Holocaust

 

Story Summary:

 Who is my friend and who is my enemy? Gail Rosen, a Jewish storyteller, goes to Germany and makes a surprising connection to a German man who lived through WWII.

 For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Who-is-a-Friend–German-Jewish-Reconciliation-After-the-Holocaust

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think people make assumptions or judgments about you based on how you look? What might they be? What do people think they know about you by looking at you? How could they be right and how could they be wrong?
  2. Can you tell of a time when you made assumptions or judgments about a person, but learned to think differently of that person later? How did that happen?
  3. How do you choose your friends? What qualities do you value in a friend?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Gail Rosen and I’m a storyteller. One of the most important stories to me, that I tell, is the story of a Jewish-German holocaust survivor. Her name was Hilda Cohen. Now I had learned about the Holocaust in high school. I’d studied about it but hearing a survivor story, that made it much more personal, more real.

In 2002, I came across an organization called Compassionate Listening. Their basic premise is that you can’t hate someone, if you’ve really heard their story. And so, they teach listening –  listening in a way that helps us to hear our common humanity in the hopes that, that kind of listening can help us to resolve conflicts.

I signed up for the Compassionate Listening Project for German-Jewish Reconciliation, and I went to Germany. I’d never thought about… going to Germany, wanted to go to Germany… but I wanted to go and see some of the places where Hilda’s story happened. And I wanted to tell her story to some of the people there, and I wanted to hear their stories.

There were 34 of us. Half of us Jews from the United States and half non-Jewish Germans. And on the first night of the project, we were sitting on a polished, wooden floor on cushions, sitting in a circle in an A- framed, shaped room with glass all around. And we went around the circle. And we each shared our feelings about coming together, to share the wounds that have reverberated through the generations, and into our own hearts, and bodies, and minds, and psyches since that time, since World War II.

One of the Jewish men told about his parents fleeing Germany with him when he was just seven years old. And he told about how they brought him up Episcopalian in northern California. They were too frightened to be Jews, even in the United States. Two other Jewish women talked about their mothers’ experiences in the concentration camps. I spoke about Hilda’s story, about the responsibility of carrying that story, and about wanting to share it there, in that place.

But it was the speaking of the Germans that stunned me.

One woman said, “Hitler ripped the heart out of our country. And now you are back.”

Another said, “We’ve been waiting, longing for our Jewish brothers and sisters to return, and finally you are here. Thank you. Thank you for coming.”

And they wept.

There was one man in the circle who drew my attention. His name is Ulrich. He’s a German man. He’s tall, very blond. He held himself very erect. His jaw was tight. And, and, though he held himself upright, when I looked at Ulrich, I had the distinct impression of someone who was doubled over in pain. And in the first days, hhh, of the project, he, he shared with us that he had always suspected that his father had been a perpetrator. Someone who willingly assisted the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. He told us how frightened he had always been of his father. Now, Ulrich is just a couple of years older than I am. Neither of us was born when that war ended, but as a little boy he was terrified of his father. And even as a grown man with his own children, family, his own career, he was, he was frightened of his father.

During the project, we traveled together to Bergen-Belsen. It’s the site of a Nazi concentration camp. Now, in Jewish tradition, we’re taught that to attend a funeral is a special mitzvah, a blessing, because you see the dead can never return the favor. And it seemed to me that, that site of Bergen-Belsen is like an eternal funeral.

It’s beautiful there; it’s park-like. There are aspen trees and moss and wild grasses. There’s a large, circular, cobblestone path, and around that path are the burial mounds.

When the Allied Forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, they found tens of thousands, dead and dying. And so, the Army dug huge, rectangular mass graves. And they laid the bodies in, in tight rows, and then stacked them like cords of wood. And covered them over. Some of them are as large as a city block. And they’re about chest high.

And on the front of each one is a, a large cement plaque and they read in German, “Here rest 1000 dead 1945.” “Here rest 800 dead 1945.” “Here rest 2500 dead.” “Here rest 2000 dead.” “Here rest untold numbers dead 1945.” There are many of them.

I walked in that place with Ulrich. And he told me, that after his father died, he and his siblings had found, locked in a safe, hidden away, an old briefcase. And, in that briefcase, were papers that indicated that his father, his father was probably, at least, partly responsible for the deaths of between 10,000 and 45,000 Jewish men, women, and children in small villages in Russia.

He said, “I consider myself my father’s son. I do not carry his guilt. I cannot change the brutal past. But I have to find a way, how to deal with this inheritance.” And then he said, “But it seems wrong. Wrong of me to talk of my pain in this place.”

Before we left Bergen-Belsen, we held a ritual service. We stood in a circle, we lit candles, and we sang prayers. There was, on the edge of the circle, a bowl of wildflower seeds. And after the service, we were each to take a handful of those seeds, and then scatter them among the wild grasses in the fields. The service had ended, and I was standing on the edge of the circle, and I looked across and I saw Ulrich. He was kneeling by the bowl of seeds. He had taken a fistful of them and his head was bowed over his hand. And I looked at him. His father helped to murder innocent people.

I thought, “How can I look at this man and not imagine his father’s crimes. But how can I look at this man, and not see an innocent, frightened little boy.”

I walked over. I knelt down. I took a handful of seeds. With my other hand, I pulled Ulrich to his feet. I pried open his fingers, I poured my seeds into his hand, mixed the seeds together, took half, and we went together, and we scattered the seeds in the field.

I’ve been to Germany five times now. Ulrich and I continue to write. He and his wife came to United States, and they visited; they had dinner at my home. And in January, I’m going back to Germany to tell Hilda’s story at Ulrich’s syna… at Ulrich’s church and a school nearby. And I will stay with him and his wife. We think of each other as friends.

When my father died, Ulrich sent me a card. Now, many of my friends sent cards, and they were lovely. But the one that moved me the most was the one from Ulrich. I want to read you a little of it.

He said, “Dear Gail, your dad has left you. I have never met him, yet, in my mind’s eye, I have the image of a kind and gentle man. A thought comes to my mind. The deaths of our parents, makes us the elders. There is no living generation before us. There is a little candle burning in front of me in honor of a man I never knew. I know his daughter. With great sympathy, Ulrich.”

I am grateful. I am grateful for people who are willing to share their stories. I am grateful for people who are willing to hear the stories of others, and I am grateful for my friend.

STORY SHORT: Remembering Lisa Derman

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REMEMBERING LISA DERMAN
by Storyteller Jim May

www.storytelling.org/JimMay
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 8 Minutes, 24 Seconds.

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THEME
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All people will face a time when they must decide
whether to stand up for what is right.
(more…)

STORY SHORT: A Twice Saved Life

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A Twice Saved Life
by Storyteller Alton Chung

www.altonchung.com
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 8 minutes, 45 seconds.

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THEME
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Even people who differ greatly from ourselves can turn out to be heroes.
(more…)

STORY SHORT: From Moon Cookies to Martin and Me

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From Moon Cookies to Martin and Me
by Storyteller Lyn Ford

www.lynford.com
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 8 minutes, 54 seconds.

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 THEME
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Working for peace and justice across faith and racial backgrounds.
(more…)

A TWICE SAVED LIFE

by Storyteller ALTON CHUNG

 

Story Summary:

Solly Ganor, a Lithuanian Jew, was a boy when Germany invaded his country in1940. He was eventually sent to Dachau and was rescued by members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team, the all-Japanese American unit. Fifty years later he once again meets the man who saved him.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Twice-Saved-Life-The-Solly-Gaynor-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Canada and forced millions of Canadians south across the border into the US. Would you open your house to take in some refugees who have nothing?  What would you give up to share with them?
  2. What if an environmental disaster occurred in Mexico and forced millions of Mexicans across the border into the US, would you open your house to some refugees who had nothing?  Would your behavior be different than your reaction to the Canadian refugees?  Why?
  3. People who lived through WWII are passing away.  In a few years, there will no longer be any eyewitnesses to the events of recent history. How do we know what happened in Civil War, in Medieval Europe, at the building of the Pyramids in Egypt?  How is history preserved?  How does the past affect our present and future?
  4. If you and your family were sent to an incarceration camp, would you volunteer to fight for the U.S.? Would you serve, if drafted into the Military? Would you remained loyal to the U.S.?

Resources:

  • Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale by Solly Ganor
  • Visas and Virtue, Visual Communications, Cedar Grove Production, 26 minutes, 1997, (1997 Academy Award, Best Live Action Short Film)
  • Okage Sama De (I am what I am because of you.) A DVD by Alton Chung

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Interfaith
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hello.  My name is Alton Takiyama-Chung.  The story I am going to tell you right now is called, “A Twice Saved Life.”  It’s from a large collection of stories which I created and called, “Okage Sama De.” (“I Am What I Am Because Of You”)  and now, “A Twice Saved Life.”

We, Jews, have a saying, “To save one life, is if to save the entire world.”  Kaunas, Lithuania.  Just a dot on a map for most Americans.  But for me, it is where I grew up. I was 11 years old when Hitler invaded Poland from the West in September of 1939. Two weeks later, Russia invaded Poland from the east.  And over the next several months, Polish Jews began streaming across the border into Lithuania.  In December of that year, like many other Jewish children in Lithuania, I decided to give my Hanukkah gelt, my Hanukkah money, to the refugees who had nothing. And then, ah, wouldn’t you know it, the new Laurel and Hardy film came in town and I just had to see it!

I decided to go see my aunt who ran a gourmet grocery store in downtown Kaunas. When I walked into the store, there was an elegantly dressed man with strange, slanted eyes.  I had never seen a Japanese man before!  Well, I told my aunt what I needed. And the man laughed and reached into his pocket, and said, “Here, here. Take it. Take the money.  Take, take it.”

I said, “Oh no, no, no! You a stranger.  You’re not family.  I cannot take money from you.”

“Well, for the holidays, why don’t you consider me to be your uncle?”

I took the coin. “Uh…Uncle…uh…my name is Solly Ganor.”

“And my name is Chiune Sugihara.”  Chiune Sugihara.  He was the Consul for the Empire of Japan to Kaunas.

Well, time went on.  In June 1941, Germany invaded Lithuania.  Eventually, my family was split up and I was sent to Bavaria, southern Germany, to a little town outside of Munich, called Dachau. I witnessed many…horrible,…terrible things…  But I survived.

In 1945, the SS guards wrestled us out of our barracks and made us march off into the frozen night.  And we marched…And we marched…And we marched.  For six days and nights we marched.  I was weak.  I was exhausted and I collapsed into a snow bank by the side of the road where the guards just left me to die.  I was drifting away and then I felt someone grab hold of me and pull me out of the snow bank. And I opened my eyes and stared into this face with strange, slanted eyes.  And I remembered Sugihara had strange, slanted eyes. There were four of them.  They were dressed in khaki uniforms and they were tired and unshaven and dirty.  And although they were speaking English, I knew that they were Japanese.  I thought to myself, “Oh, these Japanese soldiers are now here to kill me.” By then, I didn’t care.  “Go ahead! Kill me! Just get it over with!”

They looked at me and said, “No! We’re not going to kill you! We are Americans.”

“Oh, no, no, no! You are Japanese! You’re here to kill me!”  We went back and forth.

And finally, this Japanese man, fell down on his knees, weeping.  “You’re free, boy! We are Japanese Americans. You’re free!” I stared into this Japanese man’s eyes. They were kind and gentle like Sugihara’s.  It was only then that I believed.

His name was Clarence Matsumura and he was attached to the 522nd Artillery Battalion, which was part of 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  The all Japanese American unit.  They were amongst the first to discover and begin liberating the complex of camps around Dachau.  I found it ironic that Clarence and his kinsmen had volunteered to fight and die for the United States for many of them had their families locked up in “American Relocation” centers.

Well, after the war, I moved to Israel.  I didn’t talk very much about my experiences except to other people who were survivors of the camps.  Ever since my liberation, I had not been able to cry.  Psychiatrists told me that the trauma of the holocaust had just dried up all my tears. That I was now an emotional amputee; I would never cry again.

In 1992, I received a phone call from a man by the name of Eric Saul.  He was a historian from San Francisco. He said that he was here in Israel with a group of Japanese American men who were there at the liberation of Dachau.  They had come from Hawaii and California to Israel to be honored by the Knesset.  Would I meet them?

Well, I arrived at the hotel and there was this group of old Japanese men. They were all gray haired, in their 70’s.  They asked me to read an account that I had written when I had first met the members of their battalion.  And as I began reading my account, we were joined by another Japanese man – gray hair, glasses.  And when I got to the point where these Japanese men were pulling me out of the snow bank, I looked up at the newcomer.  And there were tears in his eyes.  I stopped reading.  I couldn’t go on.  I couldn’t speak.  After years of suppressing the insuppressible, this tidal wave of emotion is erupted through me.  And I began to weep.  The little boy that I had hidden away all those years had come out of hiding.  And it was he who was weeping.

All these old men gathered around me to comfort me.  “Uh…Don’t be ashamed. You are among friends now.” It was the voice of the newcomer. “Solly, this is Clarence Matsumura.”  I looked at this man, the newcomer, – gray hair, glasses.  How could this be?  I couldn’t tell.  And then he smiled.  Oh… Nothing could change that smile!  We fell into each other’s arms and the years melted away.  I was weak and he held me up…just as he had done 47 years ago on the road to Waakirchen just south of a little town called Dachau.

THE DAY THE NAZIS CAME

by Storyteller Syd Lieberman

 

Story Summary:

 An excerpt from Syd’s book Streets and Alleys, this is a true story of the day the Nazis spoke near Syd’s home at Lovelace Park in Evanston, IL and Syd’s surprising reaction.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Day-the-Nazis-Came

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Is it possible to be emotionally neutral when your family has been hurt by someone else? How do we channel rage in productive ways?
  2. What did Syd discover in himself that surprised him?
  3. What did Syd mean that there were “no victors” during this demonstration? Do you think Syd wishes he had made other choices that day? If Syd could do the day over, what would you advise Syd to do or not do?

Resource:

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

When the Nazis said they were going to speak at Evanston at Lovelace Park, at first I didn’t think much about it.  They said they were going to march in Skokie a few years earlier and it turned out to be a publicity stunt.  But as the time went on and it seemed like it was actually going to happen, I got more and more upset.  I mean, being a Jew had never been a problem for me.  I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood.  There were synagogues, delicatessens…on High Holiday, school was empty.  Everybody was out.  And when I went to college, I went to Harvard, a liberal community.  Now there was some anti-Semitism there.  There were some final clubs that I couldn’t join but they had a lot of Jews.  And when my wife and I decided to settle down, we picked Evanston – a large Jewish population, a large black population.

And so being a Jew who had never been a problem.

And now the Nazis were going to invade my territory.  Our Rabbi said, “Don’t go there.  We’re gonna have a counter demonstration at the lake.  Don’t give them the honor of a crowd.”  But I had to go.  I didn’t want the Nazis to say, a mile from my house, you can kill Jews!  Now, I didn’t know what I was gonna do.  I’m not a violent man.  I thought, “Well, I could yell; maybe we’d just drown them out so we can’t hear them.”

Now when I got there, you got a 60’s feel first.  I mean, some people were singing, some people were doing horas.  There were groups all over.  Jewish groups; Never Again.  Black groups; the Nazis hated blacks too.  Women’s groups; equality is genderless.  Ecology groups; save the whales.  Everybody marching around with signs.  And a guy walking through the crowd, probably more, there were probably a lot of guys walking through the crowd saying, “Ok.  No violence.  No violence.  You know what we’re going to do.  We’re gonna yell.  When they speak, we’ll drown them out but remember no violence.”  And he walked by me and there was a big guy standing there and he looked at me and he said, “No violence?  Did they say that at Warsaw?  Did they say that in Jerusalem?  You know what I’m gonna do?  As soon as a Nazi begins talking, I’m gonna rush down there and I’m gonna choke him to death.”  And then he walked away.  And then I thought, “There are crazies in every crowd.”

Now as the day went on, it got more and more serious.  More and more police came.  Their cars lined the park.  There was a police helicopter in the air.  And I saw what was going to happen.  There was a maintenance building at the edge of the park.  And I could see that the Nazis could park by it and take up a space in front of it and the maintenance building will cover their back.  And there was like this concrete opening in front of it.  And I figured the police would stand there to protect the Nazis.  So we got the police, the Nazis and the building.  Now when the riot police came, that’s when it got really serious for me.  They came off a bus and they looked like gladiators.  They were wearing helmets and they had shields and clubs.  Then, sure enough, they took up that space in front of the maintenance building.  They had five rows of ten.  I was standing right next to a yellow rope they had used to cordon off the area.  And next to me was this little man and he was talking to himself and he was muttering and finally he looked at me.  And he said, “Look, look, I was in the camps in Germany.  They could do whatever they wanted.  They were in power.  But here… here we’re gonna protect them?”  His wife said, “This America.  Everybody gets to say what they want.”  He says, “I can’t believe.  I can’t believe it.”

Now all of sudden, somebody yelled, “They’re coming!”  And a chat began, “Nazis no, Nazis no, Nazis no!”  And I looked up and you know what I saw? I saw a junker.  A junker.  Its fender was dented, its bumper was tied up with a rope, it was burning oil.  And I thought, “This what we’re so excited about?  Five guys in a junker?”  And then they stepped out.  It was like electricity went through the crowd.  They were wearing Nazi uniforms.  Two were in SS uniforms.  And the chat changed, “Kill the Nazis!  Kill the Nazis!  Kill the Nazis!”  And they did something that… I don’t know… it was like I had seen it before.  They just stood there in a circle ignoring us.  Smoking cigarettes and talking.  And then finally they formed a line and one stepped out with a blowhorn and he began to speak.  Now the crowd got louder and louder but you could still hear that blowhorn over all of our yelling.  Rocks began to fly through the air.  That man with the blowhorn stepped back and everyone cheered.  And then he stepped up again.  He began to speak again, and again we were screaming so loud and yet you could still hear him.  It was as if he was gaining strength from all the hatred around him. And then a brick flew through the air and hit a policeman, knocked him down.  And the chant changed to, “Kill the pigs, kill the pigs, kill the pigs!”

And then, on my left, I saw a guy get under the rope and start to run to the Nazis.  It was that guy!  He got through the first two lines.  I think they were surprised that he would actually do it.  And they clubbed him to the ground when he reached the third line.  And then a second man went under the rope and he was clubbed down.  And then a third and then a fourth and both those were clubbed down.  And then the little man on my right yelled, “Never again!” and he was under the yellow rope.  And his wife, she dove at him, she grabbed his leg.  He was dragging her along the ground.  She was wearing a wig, you know, that was now coming off.  She was yelling, “Stop ’em! Stop ’em!  They’re gonna kill ’em!  They’re gonna kill ’em!”  And I was under the rope… And it wasn’t to save that old man… I wanted to kill the Nazis.  I wanted to take that blowhorn and shove it down the Nazi’s throat… Well, thank God, by the time I reached the police, they knew they had a potential riot on their hands.  And so they had already bundled the Nazis into their car.  And when I hit that first line, the policeman gave me a bear hug.  And he yelled, “Ok.  It’s over. It’s over. Calm down. It’s over.  They’re leaving.”  And I looked up and sure enough, they were driving away. And then in minutes, the crowd left.

They would write this up as a victory.  We had stopped the Nazis from speaking.  But there was no victor on that field.  I knew that, as I stood there shaking from adrenaline in me and feeling the rage, that only victor on this field was hate.  I looked over and the men who’d been clubbed to the ground were leaning against the maintenance building field.  An ambulance had arrived bathing the park with those blue and red lights.  The old man, he was still sitting on the ground.  His wife was smoothing his head.  She kept saying, “It’s ok, it’s ok. It’s over. It’s over.  It’s ok.”  But he didn’t answer her.  He just sat there staring off into space.

AUNT HELEN

by Storyteller Syd Lieberman

 

Story Summary:

In this story a Jewish girl and her friend sneak away from the forced walk of the Nazis toward… they don’t really know. They hide in a haystack and a farmer helps them until the drums toll.  In the face of this innocence, what motivates the Nazi soldier? What compels the farmer to help? What does this story say about the capacity of human beings for good and evil?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: One-Righteous-Man-The-Story-of-Raoul-Wallenberg

Discussion Questions:

  1. Carrying the dead bodies inflicted with typhoid was unimaginable, and Helen was horrified, yet she carried the bodies. Why?
  2. What enabled Helen to live through such ordeals? Do you think you could have endured and survived all that Helen did?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Family and Childhood
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

My great aunt Helen was in Budapest in 1944 when the Nazis rounded her up to take her to a concentration camp.  The Jews of Budapest were forced to march the Austrian border to catch the train that took them to the camps.  This is my great aunt’s story, told in her words and in the way she told it.

They take us.  Hitler take us.  And I have boots and I have shoes.  Saved my life.  The lakes, they freeze but without shoes it is not enough.  They take us.  They say tomorrow all the Jews we take.  And I have boots and I have shoes.  And we walk and walk and walk.  There were so many of us.  People was dying with something terrible.  And they take us into like a woods.  And me and another girl, we run away.  There was over there a soldier.  He don’t see us.  What do we do now?  Well, we go and we go and we go.  Even with boots my foot was bloody from the walking.

We come to a farm.  With a farm with a house and a field.  And the house was straw.  Nobody there.  We want to go in.  We go in, we dig a little hole in the straw to rest.  What will be with us will be.  So quiet we was.  And then we sleep.  And then I hear, “Oh, oh, oh!  What you doing here?”  It was the farmer.

I say, “We escaped from the ghetto.”

He say, “You hungry?”

We say, “Yeah, very hungry.”  And he go away and he bring us hot milk and cake.

He say, “Tonight you come to my barn and wash up.”  And we go.  His wife and kids, they look on us.  She make a barrel of hot water.  We bath, wash our hair and little bits of clothes.  And they feed us.  And then he say, “Follow me back to the house in the field but not right away.  You watch where I go.”  We stayed there two days.  And they feed us.  And in Europe when there’s news in a little town, they have like a drum and they bang it; boom, boom, boom.  And we hear the boom, boom, boom.  And the farmer he come to us and say, “Ah, kids…you gonna have to go.  The Nazis say they’re gonna kill anyone who helps the Jews.  Tonight, when it’s dark, you have to go.”

So we go.  But we don’t know where to go so we go back to the line leading to the trains.  And we walk and walk and walk.  They take us to…I don’t know where they take us.  And they put us on the box trains.  No windows, no nothing.  They put us in that.  And people was dying with something terrible.  We had no food, no water.  We was screaming, “Wasser! Wasser!  Little Wasser!”  And once we stopped and an old German, he come to the train with a bucket.  But a German soldier knocked the bucket out of his hand and beat the man.  We would look out of little holes.  What was we looking for?  And we go here and they don’t want us and we go there and finally they take us to Belsen.

In Belsen, they put us in terrible barracks.  Like a living room, maybe 200 people.  You had to stand like this, one to another.  And when somebody die, you happy…you happy…you have more space.  They give us a little soup, a piece bread.  And you hide piece bread.  You hide it.  For when you go to sleep because everybody’s stealing.  Everybody grabbing because everybody want to live.  The girl who was hiding with me, she died.  It was like you had to want to live.

It was so terrible…  I, I look back now, I can’t believe it was me…  They died and died.  I was so sick and yet still they made me to walk around and take the dead over to what was, was like a barn, and drop them there.  And some, I swear to God, still breathing.  They made us take them to that barn and drop them there.

Helen was in Bergen-Belsen.  It was Anne Frank’s concentration camp and she died of typhoid fever.  My great aunt would have died of it too.  She was delirious when the British entered the camp.  And so when she came to, all she knew was that she was on a bed, being fed by people who were wearing white, and speaking a language that she didn’t understand.  She said, “I thought I was in Heaven.”  And it was three days before someone who could speak Hungarian told her she was alive in a British hospital.  And she said, “To tell you the truth, I didn’t believe her.”

WHY AM I A JEW?

By Storyteller Gerald Fierst

 

Story Summary:

 Gerry Fierst is someone who would describe himself as “spiritual”, but he also says: “I also love the ritual of religion which connects us to all who have gone before and all who will come long after we are gone.” Especially as Gerry got older, he realized der pintele yid lived inside of him as he could hear the words of his ancestors and pass the tradition of the blowing of the shofar on to his children.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Why-Am-I-A-Jew

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How important is it to you to have a conscious spiritual life?
  2. How important is it to you to express your spirituality in a religious community?
  3. What do you know about the great diversity of expression and experience within Judaism?

Resources:

  • An article about being culturally Jewish: http://circle.org/cultural-jews-release
  • In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People by Diane Tobin

Themes:

  •  Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews

Full Transcript:

So why am I a Jew? Why do I identify myself as a Jewish American instead of a Nothing American? Especially when somebody asks me if I believe in God and I hesitate. God? War, famine, genocide. Why would God create such a world?

And then, and then I hear the blowing of the ram’s horn. In the week between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, the period is called The Days of Awe. The story goes that the Gates of Heaven open. And in that week, you’re supposed to repay your debts. You’re supposed to ask anyone you’ve harmed for forgiveness. And you’re supposed to look inside your own self, at your own failings. And you are supposed to restore yourself with prayer and with fasting. And then at the end of the week, you have Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. All day long, you fast and you pray. And God, who has taken down the Book of Life, writes your fate in that book and then puts it back up on the shelf. And then at the end of that day, that day, which I used to hate as a little boy because you had to admit to all the petty jealousies and all the resentments that are just normal to everybody.

At the end of that day, the ram’s horn is blown. A great bony, curly thing. It’s sound is the sound of the ages. It’s the sound of Moses coming down the mountain, the sound of the children of Israel leaving Egypt. It’s the sound of Abraham, the father of all three of our religions.

I used to thrill to hear that sound. Then, as the sound of the horn vibrated through my body, I would realize that the Gates of Heaven were closing. And quickly, I would mumble, “Forgive me, God.” And the new year would begin. And we would go home. And we would break the fast with a wonderful meal that my mother had prepared. Smoked fish, lox, bagels, white fish, herring. And we would have apples and honey for good luck. My mother would always say, “May we all be here again next year.”

Well, there’s no stopping time. My mother died six years ago. I had just come back from out-of-town, and the phone rang. My mother had collapsed. She had fallen to the floor saying, “Bye, bye world.” My son and I rushed to her bedside. “Mama, Mama, I’m here.”

She opened her eyes. And she reached up and touched me on the cheek. And then she fell back against her pillow, and never awoke again. At the end of the day, when I went home, exhausted from the emotions and the duties of death, I threw myself into bed but I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and I turned. And then, suddenly, the whole room went cold. I couldn’t move. My arms and my legs were heavy. I couldn’t breathe. And I realized my mother was in the room. She couldn’t leave. “It’s ok, Mommy. We’ll be all right. It’s okay.” And I felt all the energy flowing out of the room like a current of water. Was it a dream? Did I imagine it? I lay there, and then I heard the creaking of the door to the attic in the hallway. The wind had blown it open, and I went to close it. And when I got to the hall, the door was there – open. The stairs went up, and at the top of the stairs, a light.

The Jews don’t believe in heaven. When we die, our body goes back to dust. But where does the life force go? What happens to the energy? When I was a little boy, I asked my mother, “What happens when someone dies?” And she said, “A little bit of us goes to everyone we love.”

When New Year comes, I go to synagogue with my friend, Annie. We go to the Yizkor service, the memorial for the dead. And then we wait until the ram’s horn is blown. There’s an expression in Yiddish, di pintele yid, the spark of a Jew. I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t keep all 613 commandments. But the spark that my parents put inside of me, it lives. And as best I can, I try to retain the heart of my tradition.

ALBUQUERQUE

By Storyteller Jerry Fierst

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up in New York City, Gerry never understood that Jews were such a small percentage of the world’s population. In his neighborhood, one could go for blocks and blocks and never meet anyone who wasn’t Jewish. But when Gerry went to visit cousins who had retired to Albuquerque, he discovered that “we all look alike when we are the other.”

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Albuquerque-We-All-Look-Alike

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Did you grow up in a neighborhood of people who were very similar to you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in homogenous communities?
  2. Why did the police officer not see that Gerry and his cousin looked very different from each other? How is it that we can look but not really see a person?

Resources:

  •  A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson
  • Anti-Semitism in America by Harold E. Quinley and Charles Y. Glock

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

I think of myself as an American. But every so often, I discover that I’m still the “other.” And I’m always shocked by that discovery.

I was visiting with my cousins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’d worked in the local school, and I got home mid-afternoon to find that my cousins had gone out, and locked the door. Well, I knew where the key to the side door was hidden. So, I went, and I got it, and I opened it up, and there was a chain on the door. I looked around. I found a wire hanger in the trash. I straightened it out. I was so smart. I reached in, and I jimmied the chain, and opened the door. I had broken in. I went, and I changed out of my business suit. And I went, and I got iced tea.

And I sat down in the kitchen, cooling off from the desert heat when I saw a police cap moving across the high window over the kitchen sink. The neighbors had called the police. They’d seen me breaking in. I got up. I went to the front door even before the policeman rang the bell. I opened the door, and he jumped three feet.

“You live here?”

I tried to reassure him. “Uh, no, it’s, it’s my cousins’ house. I’m just visiting.”

“You got I.D.”

“Yeah, sure. But I took off my clothes. I left my pants in the bedroom and I’ll go get my wallet.”

“Well, I’ll follow you,” he said. And so, he walked in behind me, and down the hall, where the family pictures were up on the wall.

“Hey, is that you?”

He pointed at the 13-year-old cousin, who was having his bar mitzvah. Red hair, long face, hooked nose, prayer shawl, kippah.

“No,” I said. “That’s my cousin.”

He looked at my face. He looked at my cousin’s face.

“You look just like him. Hey, you don’t need I.D. You’re Okay.”

And the officer turned and left the house. And I knew, that to him, we all look alike. We all look like the

THE NUNS

By Storyteller Gerald Fierst

 

Story Summary:

 Growing up in his New York City Jewish neighborhood was a world of homogeneity for Gerry. But an occasional intrusion of “alien nuns” could be truly scary to a young child unfamiliar with other religions.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Nuns

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Have you ever reacted with the same kind of fear that Gerry and his friends had when they saw nuns? What could the adults have done to help the children understand who the nuns were?
  2. What allows someone to react with curiosity rather than fear to someone or something that is different?
  3. Does every group have prejudices and biases? Does being discriminated or misunderstood yourself lead to your being more open-minded about others?

Resource:

  •  Catholic and Jews in Twentieth-Century America by Egal Feldman

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”

“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.

My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.

And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”

And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.

One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.

They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.

“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”

They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.

“Good morning, children.”

Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.

MORE ALIKE THAN NOT

Featuring Storytellers Arif Choudhury, Gerald Fierst and Susan O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 Through exploring misconceptions and common threads such as immigration and disagreements within their own religions, these three tellers bring alive their distinct histories and our common humanity to illuminate the experience of being an American in a time of religious tension, change and possibility.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  More-Alike-Than-Not

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What were you taught about other faith traditions? Were you given accurate information or misinformation?
  2. What groups do you identify with? Do you ever feel as though you don’t fit in in your own group?
  3. Why do people condemn, fear or stereotype people from different religions?
  4. Is there a religion you’d like to learn more about? What similarities between the major world religions might surprise you?

Resource:

  • Religious Tolerance and World Religions by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Identity
  • Interfaith
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript: 

More alike than not.  When the three of us started working together, Gerry, Arif and me, Susan, one thing we discovered, over and over again – we are so different. For instance, man, woman, black hair, red hair, less hair, brown skin, white skin, raised Muslim, raised Catholic, raised Jewish, white collar.

My father was a doctor. My father was a doctor too. Now my family, blue collar workers, mostly manual laborers, but we did have one teacher. Big family, small family, medium family. Ah huh, younger. Okay, older. But Gerry and I, we like to exercise every day and we eat healthy. Huh, and I consider potato chips a vegetable. So, you can see, we’re really different.

In fact, sometimes the three of us would look each other and we’d say we’re so different. How could we ever be friends? But then we kept working on our show. We started discovering how similar we were, for instance, how all-American our upbringings really were.

All of our families celebrated the Fourth of July. How more American than that can you be? Yeah. We celebrated Fourth of July and we had a barbecue – tandoori chicken! Ha, ha!

Food seemed to be the common element for all of our holidays. For instance, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother would always make her prized, lime green Jell-O mold with those little miniature marshmallows suspended mid-mold.

Yes. And my family for Thanksgiving, amongst all the other foods, we also had Jell-O mold but we used the recipe from Julia Child with Grand Marnier.

Now see my working class, beer and peanuts family, we would not know what Grand Marnier, I can’t even say it, Grand Marnier liqueur was. Ha, ha, ha! And in my Muslim family, we didn’t even drink alcohol so I don’t even know what a liqueur really is.

And all of our families were baseball fanatics. My teams were the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Arif and I, we’re Chicago kids so we are waitin’ for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. Go Cubs! Oh, and that’s a real definition of faith!

Yeah, but then we kept talking about our faith traditions. We came to one major similarity –  that we all pray to one God. And it’s the same God, the God who spoke to Abraham.

And in all of our religions, at one time or another, the women covered their hair as a sign of respect and dedication, devotion. And in Judaism, the men also wear a skullcap when they pray and when they’re indoors.

Yeah. Muslim men often cover their hair for prayer as well. And in all our faiths, we learned another language to practice our faith tradition. I had to learn Arabic to read the holy book, the Koran, and I learned Latin and I learned Hebrew. And we all have religious leaders. For Muslims, it’s called the imam.

Now Catholicism, there’s the priest, the bishops, the cardinal and then the pope. The Jews have a rabbi. Similarity though, in our religions most of the top leaders are men. Ha, ha, ha. And then sometimes we discover somp’in’ that really surprises. For instance, Catholics, we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and so do Muslims. And, see, we didn’t know that.

But all of our religions have times for prayer and for fasting. I remember when I was a little kid, on Yom Kippur, we’d spend the whole day praying and fasting. Uh, All I wanted to do was to go home and eat.

Ha, ha, ha. For me as a Muslim, as a kid fasting, then sleep deprivation, every day for the 29 or 30 days of the holy month of Ramadan, I’d wake up before sunup to eat an entire medium cheese pizza and half of two liters of Diet Coke. So, I go that day from sunup to sundown with no food or drink.

And say the thing about how you sometimes you get stuck out traveling, you still have to pray when you’re on the road. Right. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day no matter where you are. So, a few years back my uncle and I were driving on a rural highway in Illinois heading up toward Chicago. The sun was coming down, was time for Maghrib prayer. So, my uncle pulled the car into the gas station. We took our shoes and socks off, threw our coats on the grass nearby as prayer rugs and we bowed facing east to the holy city of Mecca. Just a few feet away from the gas pumps and the highway.

Now prayer for us meant all 12,000 of us parishioners of St. Thomas Moore Parish going to one of the many Sunday masses. I used to go with my grandma and she’d always bring her crystal rosary. And sometimes the sun would stream into the stained-glass windows, hit that rosary and spray rainbows up and down the pews. I thought my grandmother’s rosary was made of magic diamonds.

As we were learning about all our faith traditions and the different facets and elements of our faith practices, we were showing all these flip charts and all the categories and the yellow sticky notes were posted with different pieces of each of our faiths. And the more that we looked at all those little slips of paper and the more we told the stories behind all those little yellow slips, the more we realized that really, we were more alike than different even though our families came from very different parts of the world.

My family came from New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a little neighborhood called Borough Park. Borough Park could have been called Sholahova, which was the name of the little shtetl town or Jewish town that my family had come from. The avenue of Borough Park was lined with all the old Jewish merchants – the pickle man, the poultryman, the kosher butcher, the shoemaker, the baker – everybody was Jewish. I didn’t even know that the whole world wasn’t Jewish until I went to public school.

I lived in a house with my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my great aunt Tillie, my great-uncle Sam, my aunt Alice, my uncle Sidney, my cousin Jenny, my mother, my father, my sister and me. Next door were my cousins, down the street were more cousins. The doors were always open. Everybody came in and out all day.

My first crib was a dresser drawer. That way whoever was in the house could take me up and down the stairs and whoever was staying there would watch me. Every month, the whole family came to our house for the family meeting and we discussed whatever problems anybody had. Did they need a job? Did they need a loan to start a business? Do they need to get married? Whatever problem you had, the family would help. And that ethic went out into the big world. When we were very little, my great-grandmother, she would give us a dollar bill and she would say, “Go get milk and butter but I don’t want you to go to the big store. I want you to go to the little man. If we don’t help the little man, who will.”

Nowadays, well, the family still gathers. We celebrate holidays and life passages. And if we ever need help, we turn to each other and we know that there will always be help out there because if we don’t help each other, who will.

Now I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. My neighborhood was only 90 percent Irish when my grandparents came from Ireland to Chicago. They moved to an inner-city neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1900s that was just about 100 percent Irish. And coming from another land, they must have felt some comfort in being in a city that had politicians with names like Kennelly and Kelly and Daley. Now many years later in the 1950s, I was born and when I was 10 months old, my parents took us out of that mostly 100 percent Irish type neighborhood and moved us to a new development on the outskirts of the city.

They felt like pioneers. There were no streets, no sidewalks. We didn’t get mail delivered. And suddenly, they had new neighbors, some of whom had names such as English names or German names or Italian names. Now to my grandparents, this was a very dangerous situation because mixed neighborhoods could lead to… mixed marriages. And, sure enough, in high school didn’t I go and date a boy named Jim Worpinski. A Polish boy. This was interracial dating back then. Now we may have been many different kinds of white ethnic groups but the thing that held us together is that neighborhood was 99 percent Catholic. If someone asked you were… where you were from, you would say your parish on the southwest side of Chicago. I would say, “St. Thomas Moore.” I didn’t know that the official city name for my neighborhood was Wrightwood ‘til I was about 20 years old. Someone asked me where I’s from, I said Tommy Moore because we’re on a nickname basis with our St. And it did feel like ours. It was our St. Our neighborhood, our city.

When I heard Gerry talking about Borough Park, I realized that he and I have something in common. I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood except I wasn’t Jewish. And when I hear Gerry and Sue talk about growing up in their ethnic and religious enclaves, I realize how different my story really is because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago as the only Muslim boy… as the only Bangladeshi boy.

My parents came to America from a country called Bangladesh, a small country just between India and Myanmar. My father first came to America because he wanted to study medicine. And then he hoped to go back to Bangladesh when it would be safe for him to have economic and educational opportunities there. But his father, my grandfather, told him to stay in America because there might be civil war brewing. At the time, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and it might be war between East Pakistan and Pakistan for Bengali freedom. So, my father stayed in America, made money, sent it back home to the family where my mother’s family lived through the war. One of her cousins were… disappeared. The Pakistani army came and took him away. They never saw him again.

But later my father returned to marry my mother and they came and settled in Chicago where my dad, my dad got a job as a neurologist at Veterans Hospitals and we lived in this one high-rise, apartment building, because three other Bangladeshi families lived in that building too. So that was kind of our ethnic enclave. My mom and dad wanted to live there because they could share their language and their customs and their shared history and their shared loss from the war with those other families. But then one day, my dad decided to move away and buy a house in Northbrook. Now when I was living in that high-rise apartment, every morning our fathers would go off to work and our Bangladeshi mothers would gather those kids together and they would spend the day and they would trade each other’s specialty, Bengali recipes like chicken korma or roshgulla, a nice dessert. But they also taught each other new American recipes that they were learning from box tops and the sides of ingredients boxes like spaghetti with meatballs or macaroni with cheese or tuna fish sandwiches. And the other kids and I would watch Sesame Street or Electric Company.

But then we moved to Northbrook and then we were isolated from those families. Those families became my surrogate aunties and cousins and… to us. And now I didn’t see them very often, only on Saturdays at parties. And I lived in this… big house with my younger sister and my mom. And my sister and I played out… indoors quite a bit. I didn’t play outside with the other white kids. They all seemed older and they seemed to know each other. They had all gone to preschool together. I didn’t go to preschool with them so I didn’t play with them and I was afraid of being different. There was always constant reminders in our house about how different we were. There was patriotic Bengali music on the record player and each house had a… each room in the house had these woodcuts of balishi vistas, rural fishermen fishing and farmers farming. When I, later, got older and had white friends and I went to their houses, they didn’t have any of that stuff so I didn’t want to be different. But I was and I came to accept it. My parents had always thought that we would eventually go back to Bangladesh once my father was settled and had more opportunity there but that never materialized. And it was a young country with a lot of political turmoil. And then I was born and my sister was born. And my, my younger brother was born and my parents decided that kids are American. Let’s stay in America.

So, we wanted to share some of our stories with you today from our longer piece as long as everybody keeps in mind that nobody can speak for his or her group. I can’t speak for all Catholics, which certainly means I can’t speak for all Christians and I can’t speak for all Jews. And I can’t speak for all Muslims. These stories are just part of who we are.