"What does a holocaust mean? The word with a small 'h'?" asked Anita Leibowitz of the group of 8th graders assembled in the SIS Cafeteria on June 20. Several students got close to answering her question before she gave the definition: total destruction, usually by fire. The conversation turned to why that word was used to name a period of history known as the Holocaust with a big "H".
The students were remarkably well-versed in the time period thanks to the readings and discussions that they had in their ELA and social studies. They knew that 11 to 12 million people in total perished in the Holocaust and that approximately 6 million of those were Jewish. Students also knew that Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled, and those who held politically divisive views were also targeted.
Feeling confident that the students had a good background knowledge of the Holocaust, Ms. Leibowitz turned the program over to a group of 8th grade girls who had been selected to read a series of diary entries written by Ms. Leibowitz's mother, who at the age of 10 had her parents taken away from her and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942.
Hearing the entries, the students learned that Rachel Malmed lived at 17 Rue Saint Fiacre in Compiegne, France in 1942 in the upstairs apartment in a three-apartment building. The neighbors, the Ribouleau family, were the kind you would wave "hello" to, but not especially close friends. One day, the police came to take Rachel's parents to the station for "interrogation" and left the children to fend for themselves. Mr. Malmed asked Mr. Ribouleau to watch after Rachel and her 5-year-old brother until their return. Rachel and her brother never saw their parents again.
The series of diary entries ended with Rachel, herself, reading the final entry. You could hear a pin drop in the room as the students began to realize that standing before them was the very woman whose story they had just heard. Now married for 61 years, with two children and four grandchildren of her own, Rachel Malmed-Epstein travels with her daughter around the world to tell her story of survival and of the amazing kindness and generosity that existed during a time of extreme evil and hatred.
The students watched a documentary produced about Mrs. Malmed-Epstein's life and her journey back to Compiegne in 1998. The movie helped the students put faces with names and visualize the details of her story.
The students learned that the Ribouleau family openly hid Rachel and her brother, Leon, throughout the war. "You can't let children be taken to their death without reacting," said Suzanne Ribouleau when asked why she risked her life and the lives of her husband and two children to take in the abandoned Jewish children. Out of the approximately 400 Jewish citizens of Compiegne, Rachel and her brother, Leon, were the only two who survived.
The message, says Mrs. Malmed-Eptsein, is "out of the terror and horror and evil came goodness and kindness. Even though these memories hurt my heart, I realize how important it is to keep the stories alive for future generations. Always try to do the right thing."
The students were able to ask questions of both Mrs. Leibowitz and Mrs. Malmed-Epstein before their time ended. The faculty and staff enjoyed a luncheon generously provided by Micheal Mosolino where the mother and daughter were able to share even more of their story.