History made personal

SDJA honors Holocaust survivors

A staggering 1.5 million of them were children.

They were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Every year during the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, San Diego Jewish Academy fifth-graders retell some of those children’s stories.

Students read from Holocaust children’s diaries as faces flash on the screen behind them. They were children, forced to live in ghettos, not allowed to go to school, ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to live in concentration camps. They never had a real childhood.

The students read and sang songs that told of a nightmare filled with starvation, exhaustion, torture and horrible loss.

Every year the ceremony leaves the audience speechless, survivor Gussie Zaks said.

“There’s no words to describe the emotion we feel inside,” Debbie Kornberg, SDJA director of Judaic studies, said. “But look into our eyes and you know what it means to us.”

In fifth grader Janette Gaizman’s eyes there were tears, as she stood on the stage barely able to get through the last songs.

The children’s participation makes it very special for the survivors. Zaks said it’s wonderful to arrive at the school campus and see children lined up on the sidewalk to welcome them.

Survivor Horst Cahn, who spent three years in Auschwitz starting at age 16, has a great relationship with the students. Children surround him at all times.

“I’ve done it every year,” Cahn, 84, said of SDJA’s memorial. “Every year the memory of the people who died, including my family, is special.”

While there are many tears, the day is also about hope. Remembering what happened and honoring the survivors is a way to make sure it never happens again, said Larry Acheatal, SDJA’s executive director.

“If we fight bigotry, hatred and intolerance,” Acheatal said, “then there is some meaning, if there every could be, for what happened.”

And Acheatal said there is still hatred to fight, citing Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denial that the Holocaust ever happened and assertion that it was exaggerated to promote a cause.

Acheatel said allowing children to see and touch people who lived through the Holocaust ensures that they won’t allow those lies to be perpetrated.