The first group gasp came when Marion Sacher told about her childhood in the Third Reich.
Sacher, a refugee from Nazi Germany, is a resident of the Kittay House independent living seniors apartment building in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. She and a Holocaust survivor who lives there were talking about their wartime experiences one morning last week in the building’s auditorium. In the seats around them were 20 fifth graders, all girls, from PS 75X public school in the South Bronx and a handful of school staff and Kittay House residents.
Naomi Chiel, Jewish program coordinator at Kittay House, asked Sacher how old she was when the Nazi restrictions first affected her life.
“I was 10 years old,” Sacher answered.
All the girls gasped. Sacher was their age when the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws kept her and her fellow German Jews from sitting on public benches, playing in public parks or doing the things that other Germans were able to do.
The girls from PS 75X, a 40-minute school bus ride away from Kittay House, are all 10, 11 or 12 years old. They already knew the outlines of Sacher’s former life in Europe, and of Czechoslovakia-born Pearl Brown’s — their stories were the subject of a Yom HaShoah story, “Terror and Tears,” in the Daily News a few weeks ago.
Phyllis Murray, a teacher who heads the literacy/library program at the preK-5 school — where they earlier this year had learned about Anne Frank and some other aspects of the Holocaust — had “slowly” read the fifth-grade students the Daily News story, and the students were moved. Nearly all wrote letters to the women featured in the story, expressing sympathy and inviting them to visit their school. The students “had so many questions,” Murray says.
Because traveling is difficult for the senior citizens, Kittay House invited the students to visit.
On Wednesday, a few hours before the residence on the Jewish Home Lifecare campus sponsored a Jerusalem Day concert, the students (mostly Hispanics and African-Americans from low-income households) listened as Sacher and Brown (both white-haired widows who use walkers to get around) talked about their lives under the Nazis and answered the visitors’ questions.
Despite the women’s accents and a sound system that made their words hard to hear, the girls sat still for nearly two hours, without fidgeting or talking among themselves, sometimes wiping away tears.
The program marked the first time Kittay House had asked the Holocaust survivors or refugees who live there (four others declined to participate) to speak about their wartime memories to groups of students who are not Jewish, and the first time the school had brought its students to meet people like Sacher or Brown.
“The opportunity presented itself. We jumped on it. When we read the [students’] letters, we were blown away,” says Arlene Richman, director of Kittay House. Several “tenants” there with Holocaust backgrounds have died in the last few years.
The girls knew some facts about what happened to Europe’s Jews in the Shoah. The women “put a face on it for the kids,” Richman says.
The girls read handwritten questions they had prepared in advance — “What were your dreams” before the Holocaust came? “What were you thinking when you were crammed in the trains on the way to concentration camps?” “How did the Holocaust affect you?” — and peppered the women with more questions afterwards.
The girls learned about ghettoes and crematoria. They alternately giggled and shook their heads as Sacher and Brown spoke.
The women talked about growing up as Jews in societies where being Jewish was a danger; about leaving their homelands; about relatives they lost in the Final Solution; about Auschwitz (Brown); about witnessing Kristallnacht and settling in Palestine (Sacher); about marrying and eventually coming to the United States.
Sacher mentioned she recently turned 90. All the students shouted “Happy Birthday!” Brown, 89, mentioned a number tattooed on her arm. Everyone crowded around as she rolled up her left sleeve to show the fading number: A-11728. “The A means Auschwitz,” she explained.
Again, the students gasped.
The tweens did not see the women, eight decades older, as senior citizens, Murray says. “They see them as persons who were their age.”
“How did you survive?” one student asked. “Just luck,” Sacher answered. “I was lucky.”
Brown described her incentive: “I said I’m going to survive. … I’m going to live to tell my descendants” her story.
Then the students answered questions that Chiel asked. What did they learn from the women’s stories? Hands shot up. “It shows that if one person can do it [not give up], anyone can do it,” one girl said. “Now I know what some people are capable of,” said another. “In the future, I’m going to believe in myself,” a third said.
The women’s stories added “a context” to what the students learned in school, said Tiffany Diaz. Anaya Vasquez said the women’s positive attitudes, despite their losses years ago, put her problems in perspective. “We have it good in general.”
“They saw,” says Murray, who organized the visit to Kittay House, “that people can survive tragedy. Meeting the survivors … this is going to stay with them.”
Time came for the students’ bus to take them back to PS 75X and for Sacher and Brown to go to lunch.
As they parted, all the girls embraced the women. “I’m going to miss you,” one of the girls told Sacher.
“And I’m going to miss you,” Sacher said.