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Metz, Hilliard, Mizrachi and Nayor emphasize importance of keeping Holocaust stories alive


Ella Nayor 02In observance of Holocaust Remembrance Month, Lab Theater schedules a play and community talk-back each April that focuses on themes  related to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and discrimination based on religion and ethnicity. This year, the Lab is producing Alfred Uhrey’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a play set in 1939 Atlanta that explores the meaning of family and religion against a backdrop of the war looming in Europe and the impending genocide of millions of German, Polish, Czech and Russian Jews. Bob Hilliard 02After last night’s performance, Project Tolerance partner and Florida Weekly contributor Ella Nayor moderated a panel discussion and audience talk-back that featured members of the cast and Holocaust survivor Steen Metz, Holocaust educator Avi Mizrachi and former American soldier and liberator Dr. Robert Hilliard.

Nayor opened the discussion by inviting the panelists to comment on why it is still of utmost importance to commemorate the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, more than 70 years after World War II ended and the camps were liberated.

Nayor Steen and Trossbach 02A survivor of “eighteen months in hell” at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia, Steen Metz recounts his story at schools, libraries, synagogues, churches and senior centers every chance he gets. In fact, Thursday night’s talk-back was his third speaking engagement of the day. “Over the past five years, I’ve talked to more than 40,000 people,” he said Thursday night. He’s making up for lost time. Prior to 2011, he kept his experiences at Theresienstadt private. Many Holocaust survivors found it impossible to talk Steen Metz 04about what happened in the camps, even to their own children and grandchildren. But in 2011, he decided to write his memoirs, which he’s compiled in a self-published book titled A Danish Boy in Theresienstadt. Now, it’s Steen’s life mission to share his experiences with as many people as he can reach.

“I’m determined to keep the victims’ memories and stories alive.”


Steen Metz 02A number of factors are at play. In part, Steen feels a keen responsibility to provide a voice to those who perished during Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). By sharing his story, he’s also able to keep their memories alive and ensure that their deaths did not occur in vain. In this latter regard, he’s quick to draw a parallel to the genocide of a million and a half Armenians in Turkey 100 years ago (which is the subject of the film The Promise Steen Metz 06starring Christian Bale, Charlotte Le Bon and Oscar Isaac).

“Today, 100 years later, no one in Turkey is allowed to talk to the people [about this],” said Steen on Thursday night. “Turkey doesn’t even recognize that it ever happened. If you grow up in Turkey, there are no books, no education, nothing about it. So I draw a parallel. And I ask you not only to never forget, but to be my ambassador, to spread the word to at least four other people. That’s important, because 50, 60 years from now, Bob Hilliard 04we won’t be around to talk about the Holocaust.”

“It’s a very personal question,” responded Bob Hilliard, who was a private in the Army stationed in Germany when the war came to an end. At Saint Ottilien outside of Dachau, Bob witnessed the extreme mistreatment of the Holocaust survivors who had congregated at a hospital in a monastery in search of food, clothing and medical care. They were emaciated, gravely ill, and still wore concentration camp stripes, and like the U.S. government over the preceding decade, the Army turned its back on them, leaving them to fend for themselves without any means or support.

Ballyhoo Talk Back 02“I remember their faces, particularly the little children. They had no place to go. I cry when I think of those kids, begging, begging, pleading to be allowed to go to some country where they could find a new life, find a life again,” Bob continued, his voice choked with emotion as if those children were standing before him now.

In addition to stealing food for the survivors, browbeating the local Burgermeisters (“the same one who’d been in power under Hitler”) to lending some aid, and giving them the shirts off their backs, Hilliard and fellow private Edward Herman wrote a letter addressed to the American Bob Hilliard 08accusing them and the government of genocide by neglect. They personally mailed thousands of these letters to people all over the United States, imploring them to send donations and forward copies to everyone they knew. A copy of their letter found its way to President Harry S. Truman, who reversed the U.S. policy of neglect, thereby saving the lives of untold numbers of Holocaust survivors. Bob and Ed Herman are credited with saving more than 600 lives at Bob Hilliard 06St. Ottilien alone.

“I see those same faces today. The people and the children from the Middle East begging, pleading, please let us come into a country where we can start a new life. So, yes, [the Holocaust] has a very important meaning for me today.” In his estimation, history is repeating itself in the auspices of the millions of Syrian refugees who are desperately trying to flee systematic genocide at the hands of Russian-backed president Bashar al-Assad.

Avi and Steen 02For the past 25 years, Avi Mizrachi has worked with Holocaust survivors at both the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach and the Foundation for Holocaust Education Projects he co-founded with Katharine Gorsuch in 2008. He’s also second generation. From Poland, his parents survived both the ghettoes and the death camps.

“Working with survivors, I know they’re concerned about Avi Mizrachi 02who will continue to tell their story once they’re gone,” said Avi from the stage Thursday night. “Think about it. We are coming next year to the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I. And soon enough, it will be one hundred years since the end of World War II. For 70 years, our beloved survivors have told their stories with great courage. But now, sadly, this chapter in history is coming to an end. Most of our survivors are either gone already or are no longer in the kind of shape where they can come out and share their stories as Bob and Steen have done tonight. Who will tell their stories once they’re all gone?”

That’s why Mizrachi and his foundation focus on middle and high Avi Mizrachi 06school students. But for Mizrachi, the thrust of their efforts extends well beyond merely documenting the events of the Holocaust and the survivors’ individual stories.

“It’s not about what happened to them, but what they decided to do with their lives afterwards,” Avi points out. “In Bob’s case, he made the choice to risk his so-called military career as a private and to rescue over 600 Jews from certain death. Our survivors, represented here by Steen Metz, made a choice to lead a life that is worthy of our respect once they were freed. They could have used what happened to them as an excuse for failure. But they didn’t. They got jobs. They went to school at night. They got married, had children, raised families. They created communities. They Avi and Steen 04worked hard to create the country of Israel. And they spread their passion for life wherever they went. They had a choice, as do people today. Do you want to be good citizens or do you want to be criminals? It is a choice only you can make. Nobody can make it for you. Holocaust survivors and liberators should be role models, not professional athletes. The power of the Holocaust is not the black and white images from the camps but the Avi Mizrachi 04examples set by the survivors through the lives they led after they were liberated.”

In Mizrachi’s case, his foundation seeks to accomplish this goal through community outreach programs aimed at middle and high schools, especially in smaller communities. Partnering with middle school teacher Amy Falkner from Waynesboro, Ella and the Cast 04Virginia and playwright Kelly D. Brock from Oxford, Michigan, Foundation for Holocaust Education Projects co-founder Katharine Gorsuch has developed a number of “outside-the-box” projects designed to preserve and perpetuate the examples set by Holocaust survivors.

“One is a play that tells the story of ten Holocaust survivors,” Avi Ella and the Cast 02related to the Lab Theater crowd. “We give it to a schoolteacher, who picks 50 kids to participate in the project. Some of the students became survivor storytellers. You’d be amazed to see a young men and women, most of whom are not Jewish, standing on a stage telling the story of a Holocaust survivor in the first person. They literally take on the identity of the person whose story they’re telling. At the end of what’s a three month journey for them, they put on a production in their community. These 50 kids who participated personally in those stories will be the best, most outstanding citizens because they’ve seen the amazing ways the survivors picked themselves up and started a new life all on their own. If we can do that to change the hearts and Ella and the Cast 06minds of the students today, take them away from the cell phones and all this craziness they’re surrounding themselves with, there’s hope to making the world a little bit better.”

[Teachers, students, and community leaders are welcome to contact the Foundation for Holocaust Education Projects to learn more about this and other projects that will enrich the lives of their students and communities by emailing or visiting for more information.]

Butterfly 01A handful of cineastes learned about another community-based Holocaust remembrance project on the last day of this year’s Fort Myers Film Festival when NOT the Last Butterfly was screened.

Released in 2016, the film tells the inspiring tale of The Butterfly Project, a grass roots art education initiative that seeks to memorialize the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust through global displays of ceramic butterflies … one butterfly Butterfly 03painted for each child. The Butterfly Project’s messages of hope and healing are woven together with survivors’ courageous stories of those dark times, including a little-known story of the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where a young Ela Weissberger was imprisoned as a child. Now a survivor in her eighties, Ela reveals how she and other children were given the strength to endure the Holocaust by an artist and teacher who helped them express the trauma of their experiences through art. Both a moving account of survival and a lesson in the healing power of art working its magic again, NOT The Last Butterfly offers young and old alike a new way to find hope in one of history’s great tragedies and empowers all of us to take action to create Butterfly 02a more peaceful world.

As of 2016, installations totaling nearly 150,000 butterflies have been created in communities of all faiths across the United States and in such diverse countries as Israel, Mexico, Poland, Australia, Czech Republic, Canada and Argentina.

And indie film fans also got to meet another second The Stairs 01generation survivor at both the Fort Myers Film Festival and this year’s Second Annual Bonita Springs Film Festival in the guise of Mort Laitner, who produced a film titled The Stairs. The short, low-budget film is a poignant recounting by a Holocaust survivor of his most harrowing day at Auschwitz. Unable to tell this story to his son face to face, he records his account of the day he arrived at the death camp and has the cassette tape mailed to his son after he’s died. But it turns out that the boy has already heard his father’s story. You see, as a ten-year-old boy he sat on the stairs listening to his father tell the tale to company he and his mom had invited over to their house one the evening.

The Laitners 02“That 10-year-old boy was me,” Laitner told both film festival audiences earlier this year. Laitner sees it as his duty to pass his father’s message along to new generations. He does that not only through the film, but by talking to audience members at every film festival he’s able to attend. To date, The Stairs has been juried into more than 20 film festivals in seven different countries. Mort has personally attended seven of them, and he continues to be moved when people ask to shake his hand and share with him stories they’ve heard from Holocaust survivors they know or have met in their condos, schools and communities.

Bob Hilliard 10Individually and collectively, Nayor, Metz, Hilliard, Mizrachi, The Butterfly Project and Laitner are challenging us to learn from the survivors’ examples to speak up in the face of genocide, anti-Semitism and prejudice, persecution and bigotry in all of its heinous forms.

“But some people, and some of you sitting here tonight [or reading this right now] ask ‘What can we do? We’re just individual people. We have no power. We have no standing,’” observed Bob Hilliard on Thursday night.

“[Ed Herman and I] were a couple of privates with no power and no standing, but we were willing to try. Ballyhoo Talk Back 03We were successful and saved some lives. Sure, you may try and be unsuccessful, but if you don’t try, you are as bad as the people who [perpetrate acts such as these]. So I say to you right now: Do whatever you can. And if you’re successful, you will have done a good deed. You may even save some lives.”

Monday, April 24, marks this year’s observance of Yom Hashoah, a date that corresponds with the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It corresponds with the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and technically begins at sundown on Sunday, April 23 and continues until nightfall on Monday, April 24. It was inaugurated in Dance 011953 by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and President Isaac (Yitzchak) Ben Zvi. In Israel, a siren is sounded on the eve of Yom Hashoah, followed by an official memorial service headed by the Prime Minister, President, Army Officials and Holocaust survivors. The service includes speeches, Kaddish and El Maleh Rahamim (memorial prayers) and the Hatikvah (Israel National Anthem). Another siren is heard in the morning, followed by various memorial Last Night 62services.

April 21, 2017.


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