December 10, 2018

Shoah survivors ‘graduate’ from New Jew

At first glance, the idea seemed sort of maudlin.

New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) awarded eight Holocaust survivors honorary high school diplomas last Wednesday night, symbolically handing them back a part of their adolescence that had been stolen by the war.

The emotions seemed almost too easy to elicit, the standing ovation the elderly graduates received too disturbingly predictable.

But between the bubbling emotion of the graduating seniors, and the pride of the survivors, there emerged a sense that the bond between them that was not only intimate, but unexpectedly substantive.

The students met these survivors on March of the Living, a pilgrimage to concentration camps in Poland and then to Israel. They got to know the survivors, and heard their stories of lost youth. It hit the 17- and 18-year-olds — these grandparent figures were the same age and younger when their worlds caved in. They lost families, they lost their homes and their bearings; they never had a chance to do something as simple as take algebra and literature and biology.

And the idea of loss wasn’t as foreign as one would assume for these kids — who have attended a private school in West Hills with all the comforts of a Jewish upper-middle-class life. One after another, though, the four students selected to speak at graduation to represent the class — the third graduating class of this young school — talked about challenges that had punctured the air of invulnerability to which teens might seem entitled. In their four years, three of 88 students in the class lost their fathers. One classmate battled cancer. Just last month, the NCJHS community was shattered by the death of an alumnus from its previous graduating class.

More than many teens, these kids have a sense of what it means to have your foundations shaken. And they know how to give support and comfort to those around them who are grieving.

So it makes sense that after 35 NCJHS seniors returned from March of the Living three weeks ago, their instincts told them to embrace these Shoah survivors — officially, institutionally.

On Wednesday, May 28, Dorothy Greenstein, Jean Greenstein (not related), Sigi Hart, Emil and Erika Jacoby, Sidonia Lax and Paula Lebovics joined the 88 graduates (survivor Halina Wachtel couldn’t be there) at NCJHS’s graduation. As the high school seniors and the senior citizens together marched in the processional to Israeli and American pop songs wearing billowing crimson gowns and tassled caps, they received their diplomas, they turned their tassels and got flowers and hugs from friends and family.

Emil Jacoby, who for many years headed the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles (BJE), counted this as his sixth diploma. Hart said it was his first.

“The only place I ever graduated was Auschwitz,” Hart said. “I never thought at 83 I would have a graduation!”

The day was especially meaningful for Hart, who graduated alongside his granddaughter, Nicole Birnebaum.

Hart was a boy when the Nazis took over his native Berlin — his bar mitzvah was supposed to have been a few days after Kristallnacht, in November 1938. He survived Auschwitz, and after liberation he went to Israel, where he fought in the War of Independence and later in the 1956 Sinai campaign. By the time he got to Los Angeles in 1957 with his wife and two children, schooling was out of the question. He went straight into the schmatte business, manufacturing shirts for men and boys.

Last month’s trip was Hart’s fourth on March of the Living, where 10,000 people from around the world march on the railroad tracks that carried prisoners from Auschwitz to the Birkenau crematoria.

Paula Lebovics counts as adopted children the 130 kids who comprised the Los Angeles delegation, sponsored by the BJE.

In her purse, Lebovics carries a folded-up photocopy of a photograph that today hangs in one of the bunkers in Auschwitz. Lebovics is in the picture, a gaunt, frightened 11-year-old in a crowd of inmates behind barbed wire.

On this trip, Lebovics went back to Treblinka for the first time, where she said Kaddish for her two sisters where they were murdered. Three brothers and her mother survived.

Lebovics spent her high school years in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where she was taught Hebrew. She earned her high school diploma in 1968 after attending night school in Los Angeles, and then went to college.

For Emil Jacoby and his wife, Erika, the graduation was a sweet moment of continuity, not only because they saw how these kids would carry on a legacy that was almost lost, but because both had taught some of the school’s founders, and the graduates’ parents. Emil, who spent the war in the Zionist underground, for many years was the principal of of Adat Ari El religious school and, as the head of the BJE, served as mentor and role model to, among others, Dr. Bruce Powell, NCJHS founding head of school.

Erika, about whom the movie “Swimming in Auschwitz” was made, never graduated high school, but she went to college and became a therapist. She also taught Hebrew at Camp Ramah, and among her students was Howard Farber, founding president of NCJHS and father of a graduate. Farber signed Erika’s diploma.

And that continuity is what this offering was about. On the one hand, the expected emotions of graduation: cheering, tearing seniors; kvelling, incredulous parents wondering how they have children old enough to be where they just were; faculty, especially at this newly birthed school, proud of the accomplished adults they grew from the insecure ninth-graders that walked through the door.

And on top of that, the inexplicable element that, whether conscious or not, underlies every Jewish event — the vestiges of destruction, the personal but mass-scale tragedy that sits like a veneer on so many families. Here, rather than leave it unsaid, the horror of the past was wrapped into the brightness of what lies ahead.

“I want them to become advocates for the future,” said Sidonia Lax, who had long discussions with the kids on bus rides in Poland and Israel. Lax, whom Powell also counts as a mentor, was 12 when the war broke out. She survived a ghetto and two concentration camps, and leapt from a bombed-out transport with her clothes on fire just days before liberation. She spent her life in the United States volunteering to ensure that the world is a tolerant, safe place, working for neighborhood councils, Jewish organizations, educational institutions and political advocacy groups.

This was her first time in cap and gown.

“For these children, living in comfort like they live today, I want them to learn how to deal with the challenges and the controversies they will be faced with in the future,” Lax said.

The class of 2008, it seems, got a jump-start on that future. And they jumped right in.