BOSTON — When teacher Mary Beth Donovan prepared her students to read Anne Frank’s diary 10 years ago, she screened a selection of the famous newsreel clips shot during the liberation of Nazi camps in 1945. Astoundingly, after watching the films, some of Donovan’s students began referring to the genocide and Anne Frank as “fake” events that had not occurred.
Noting that most of her class listened to the conversation as “silent bystanders,” Donovan knew she faced a challenge. The eighth grade teacher at the Tenney Grammar School in working class Methuen, north of Boston, recognized that students needed a connection between their own lives and Holocaust victims who appeared remote and irrelevant.
Donovan’s subsequent response to the Holocaust denial she found in her classroom, and her long-term work in bringing sustainable Holocaust education to the school, earned her the first “Leadership in Holocaust Education Award” from Boston’s Jewish community during its annual Yom HaShoah commemoration on May 1. Organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the gathering took place at Faneuil Hall on Boston’s Freedom Trail, close to the New England Holocaust Memorial’s six glass towers.
To fight the denial in her classroom, Donovan investigated local survivors who could speak with students about the genocide. She found several articles about Boston-area survivor Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, the former head of New England’s dwindling survivor association. The 91-year old activist has addressed hundreds of groups through the years, from Boston to Berlin, and seemed a strong a choice to convince Donovan’s students of the Shoah’s veracity.
Arbeiter met with students to share his experience surviving forced labor in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the details of his family’s murder at Treblinka, where he has visited several times. Perhaps most memorably, he showed students the number tattooed onto his arm upon arrival at Auschwitz, and tried to give them an understanding of the dehumanization involved in genocide.
“They ran their fingers tentatively along those numbers,” said Donovan. The educator said that through his testimony, her students have been able to “find their story in Mr. Arbeiter’s story,” she said.
“I knew my words would never be powerful enough to erase that hint of denial,” recalled Donovan, now the school’s principal. Over the past decade, in addition to hosting Arbeiter, she has helped hundreds of Methuen students submit essays to an annual Holocaust memory essay contest named in his honor.
Praising Donovan for fostering “critical and compassionate thinking in young minds,” event committee member Jack Arbeiter thanked the 70 students and staff from the school for attending the commemoration — despite having to miss the baseball season’s opening game.
“So many of our children have chosen to be here today because of a promise they made,” said Donovan to booming applause. “These lessons have settled into the foundations of our school building,” she added.
Arbeiter, his wife Anna, son Jack and other family members attended yesterday’s commemoration, along with more than 200 community members. Despite existential threats facing Israel and the growth of Holocaust denial, fewer people than ever are familiar with what took place during World War II, according to event committee co-chair Rick Mann, who opened the proceedings.
Citing a 2013 study, Mann said barely half of the world’s adults have heard of the Holocaust, and one-third of them do not believe it took place as described. Mann referenced Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby’s dire assessment of the situation in last week’s newspaper.
“Dispiriting as those numbers are, they are bound to grow even worse,” wrote Jacoby. “As the generation of Holocaust survivors passes away, as Holocaust-deniers spread their poison, as indifference to history takes its inevitable toll, remembrance of the Nazis’ Jewish genocide will dissipate,” he wrote.
As Mann told the audience, “this is why we gather today and must continue to do so forever.”
In addition to several performances and dignitaries’ remarks, survivor Eva Fleischmann Paddock spoke about being one of 669 children rescued on the Kindertransport sent from Czechoslovakia to England. A long-time resident of the area, Paddock is one of the few Kindertransport children whose parents survived the Holocaust.
Following the “Hymn of the Partisans,” attendees walked across the street to the New England Holocaust Memorial, where the Mourner’s Kaddish was chanted and Shoah victims’ names recited by teenagers.
For several years, Boston’s 3G group — the grandchildren of survivors — has staged a “Frozen Memorial” to honor victims, with members wearing branded T-shirts and posing in the heart of Faneuil Hall’s busting shopping scene. Through approaching strangers and holding up signs for social media, 3G-ers raise awareness at the center of what has been called the country’s most visited tourist area.
Since the 1995 construction of the adjacent New England Holocaust Memorial, millions of tourists have learned about the genocide through the monument’s plentiful texts, testimonials and timeline. A time capsule buried near the walkway entrance contains the names of local survivors’ murdered family members. The 54-foot towers — each named for one of the six death camps — are strikingly lit and hover over grave-like pits, from whose smoldering ruins an intermittent mist rises.
Yesterday, a few small 4Gs — the children of 3Gs — could be spotted wearing the group’s blue shirts, placing painted Rocks of Remembrance along the towers and posing for photos. With the passing of more survivors each year, these witnesses to the last eye-witnesses will be the stewards of Holocaust memory.