For most sixth-graders — separated from the events by seven decades, religion, and daily experience — the Holocaust would be hard to fathom. But for more than 60 students at New Brunswick Middle School, the Holocaust is something more than an abstract history lesson.
The students, largely African-American and Latino, wrote two original Holocaust-themed plays, All Those That Suffered are Never Forgotten and Hope is What they Wished For, after reading about the lives of Jewish children during the Nazi terror.
Under the direction of the staff of New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse and through a grant from the Bank of America Foundation, the two language arts classes of Sally Johnson and Lixangel Daniel performed the plays at the school March 15.
GSP education director Jim Jack told the students, “Your voice has tremendous power to change the world.”
That same message was reflected in the black T-shirts the students wore, which were designed by GSP graphic designer Mark Kiernan based on ideas they submitted. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the future” was the inscription on the shirts.
Katherine McLeod, a teaching artist at GSP who worked with the students, said they had to overcome their disbelief that the events surrounding the Holocaust could be true.
In preparation, the youngsters read the historical novel Number the Stars by Lois Lowry — about a Danish family who shields a Jewish girl — and each was assigned an actual child victim to research as part of the project, said Johnson.
She said students collaborated on the plays, which touch on Jewish life before World War II, the Nazi occupation, relocation to ghettos, deportations to concentration camps, and resistance. At points, actual war-era footage played silently on a screen in the background.
A Holocaust survivor, Fay Malkin of West Orange, had come to speak to them about her own experiences. Malkin, who attended the performance, said she was confident after seeing the play they understood her message.
The plays ended with the singing of a piece from Brundibár, an opera written by Czech Jew Hans Krása and performed in 1944 at Terezin, the Nazis’ “show” camp. As they sang in English, footage of Terezin’s Jewish children’s choir was shown, ending with a notation that most of the young performers were gassed two weeks later.
Dr. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said, after witnessing the performance, that he was “filled with such emotion and hope.”
James Livingston, the father of one of the young actors, said he had learned in school about what happened to adults in the Holocaust, but that “today gave me a great appreciation of what the children went through.”
At a “cast party” after the performance, student Dennis Reyes told NJJN he had had trouble processing the Holocaust.
“I didn’t understand why Hitler tried to capture the Jews,” he said. “The Jews didn’t do anything wrong or hurt anybody. Nobody wants to go through what those children went through.”
Dennis said he learned from his studies that “you should use your voice” against those who try to “bring people down.”
Student Luis Garcia was also left wondering why the world allowed Nazism to spread.
“Why did they have to do that to people?” he asked. “People should be respected and have rights and Jewish people should have had freedom.”