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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Holocaust stories passed down to new generation

“During Rosh Hashanah 1942, trains began sending Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka. Hannah’s mother went to the head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) to ask for Hannah to be listed as a worker in hopes that this would save her life. Hannah’s new status was arranged and soon after she left the ghetto for labor with her aunts and uncles. ... When she heard her mother calling her name, Hannah quickly ran back to see what was wrong. Her mother pleaded with her to stay with the rest of the family. ... Hannah promised that there was no need (to say goodbye) and she would be back in the morning. Hannah’s father, mother, and two younger sisters were deported to Treblinka the next day and were never seen again.”— From Maya Sutin’s retelling of Hannah Kuperstoch’s experience during World War II

By Lauren Garrison
Register Staff

When Maya Sutin and Hannah Kuperstoch met, they felt an instant bond.
By the time they completed nine months of interviews in which Kuperstoch told her life story — from her happy childhood in Poland, to World War II when she was separated from her immediate family, to the life she built after the war — they were practically family.
The telling took place because Sutin, of Woodbridge, and Kuperstoch, of Hamden, are one of eight pairs of Holocaust survivors and high school students this year to participate in the “Adopt a Survivor” program, through which life stories are passed to the new generation for safekeeping and sharing. The program was coordinated by Anat Levitah Weiner with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. The students are from Greater New Haven and attend MAKOM-Hebrew High School.
The program was founded in 1998 by Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor and director of the Holocaust Resource Center in Manhasset, N.Y., as a way to capture and preserve survivors’ stories.
The local program began in October and concluded Wednesday when the pairs lit candles together at the community ceremony for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge.
Weiner learned of the program through the Hebrew high school in Bridgeport, which helps run it.
“Holocaust education is so important and the survivors don’t have that many years,” Weiner said. “It’s important that someone will pass on those stories and continue with Holocaust education.”
Participating students were selected for their maturity, sensitivity, creativity and, most important, interest in history and Holocaust education, Weiner said.
They are Marla Spivack, Julia Krasnow, Nicole Spector, Aliza Gans, Michael Malinconico, Jonathan Hess, Noah Firtel and Sutin.
Sutin, whose grandmother is a survivor, said she’s always felt a connection to the Holocaust and enjoyed learning about it.
Finding Holocaust survivors who were able and willing to participate posed more of a challenge, Weiner said.
“It’s not an easy process. It’s to relive the Holocaust again, and it’s a very personal journey,” she said.
Participating survivors are Eva Benda, Sidney Glucksman, Helene Rosenberg, Shifra Zamkov, Giorgina Vitale, Anna Goldberg, Stanley Swimmer and Kuperstoch.
Before students interviewed the survivors, they met with Roth and heard several speakers, including Holocaust educators, a psychiatrist and people who had interviewed survivors before. The students were trained in interview techniques and the group collectively prepared questions.
Each student interviewed their survivor at least four times, with interviews covering the survivor’s childhood, the period prior to the start of the war, the war experience through liberation, and post-war experiences.
Sutin, an Amity of Woodbridge student, described her first interview with Kuperstoch as “nerve-wracking.” But as they got deeper into the story, Sutin said she got more comfortable and was able to venture outside prepared questions. She became “more comfortable listening,” she said.
For her part, Kuperstoch thought Sutin was “a genius” for piecing together a coherent story from her rambling.
“I really got a sense of who she was and how strong she is, not just because she survived but how she rebuilt” her life after the war, Sutin said.
The most difficult part of Kuperstoch’s story for her to tell ended up being the most compelling for Sutin.
After her parents and sisters were deported to Treblinka, Kuperstoch was set to work building riverbanks with her aunts and uncles. Three days later, the SS came to take all children from the labor camp. Risking his own life, Kuperstoch’s uncle bribed a guard for a letter authorizing him to take his niece from the labor camp to prevent her deportation. Kuperstoch hid in a barn with another family until it was safe to emerge.
As Kuperstoch frequently mentioned this experience, Sutin said she felt it her “job” to incorporate it into a poem.
Each student was required to create an art project based on their survivor’s experience.
“It’s one thing to really write the (survivor’s) story and take the story and pass it on. But I think the art project is really how (students) internalize and how they interpret the experience of the survivor,” Weiner said.
Projects ranged from sculptures and paintings to songs and interpretive dance.
Sutin’s poem, which she wrote in the present tense from Kuperstoch’s point of view, felt to her like “the most powerful way to express” the story Kuperstoch told her, she said.
It concludes:
“But Uncle, I want you to see how brave you really are
Baruch Hashem, you saved my life even when your own was teetering off the edge
You risked everything you had, all the energy in your body to keep me alive
For your act of courage, dear uncle, I would like to say thank you
Toda raba la dod ha gibor, Thank you to my brave uncle”
The first time Kuperstoch saw the poem, she said, it nearly brought her to tears.
Kuperstoch also recalled for Sutin many happy memories from her childhood, a comfortable life that included a loving family.
But the happy memories are colored by knowledge of what came later, said Kuperstoch. “I can’t be happy full heartedly,” she said.
The experience Sutin and Kuperstoch shared has made them extremely close.
Sutin’s family invited Kuperstoch to a Shabbat dinner and when Kuperstoch expressed anxiety about finding their home, they picked her up. She felt immediately comfortable with Sutin’s family, she said.
At an event last month at the JCC, many students said their survivors had become like grandparents to them.
“From two people who had such a huge gap, not just in terms of age, they realized that they had so many things in common,” said Weiner. “It really became like a family relationship.”
Sutin and Kuperstoch said they plan to stay in touch.
Sutin also said she plans to spread Kuperstoch’s story and use it as a tool to fight anti-Semitism and denial of the Holocaust.
Even at school, Sutin says she rarely hears anti-Semitic comments being made. She said she was put off when, during study of the Holocaust, her teacher refused to show photos, saying they were too graphic.
“It’s reality and you have to face it,” Sutin said. “I know I’m just going to keep telling (Kuperstoch’s) story forever.”
Lauren Garrison can be reached at 789-5614 or lgarrison@nhregister.com.

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