Recently, I was at the School Without Walls Commencement Academy anticipating another ordinary morning. Then I learned our class would be reading the concluding chapter of Night by Elie Wiesel.
Suddenly, we were transported back to April 1945, the horrific and harrowing last days of Nazi Germany. Just weeks before liberation, Wiesel’s father dies, his sole remaining link to an utterly destroyed past life. The camp is liberated but the survivors’ humanity has been all but eradicated. As I read aloud, my throat sometimes catching, the class was silent, each of us, younger and older, trying to make some personal sense of the senseless.
Later in the day I found out the entire school is reading Night as part of the SWW’s Community Read project. Twice a year, all students and teachers engage in reading novels with compelling political, social, and educational significance. According to Principal Idonia Owens, the activities around the ‘all school reads’ serve as unifying threads between subjects, and are designed to boost student skills in English language arts and research paper writing.
As part of the Read, in March, with the assistance of the Rochester Jewish Federation, the school invited 8 Holocaust survivors to tell their story. To contemporary students events that took place almost 70 years ago feel distant indeed. But through reading Wiesel’s powerful memoir and hearing the survivors’ testimonials in person, the results were profound. All were moved and inspired.
The day made a particularly strong impression on senior Parris Cooper. Describing his response, Parris explained, “I was amazed more than anything. I am obsessed with history so to me this was like a firsthand sight of walking history, pure history.” Sharing the sentiments of many, Parris added, “the stories were interesting but turned depressing because to know the struggle and hardship the Jewish community went through was devastating.”
Paris also thought reading Night helped amplify the experience. “When the survivors told us stories about their times in the concentration camps, it made the
book more of a vivid picture. It was easier to understand where Elie Wiesel was coming from. The survivors described first arriving at the camps, as odd and depressing, the same way Wiesel did.” Reflecting upon the day, Parris concluded with a simple truth, always keep faith with you.
In addition to the visit and the reading, teacher Samantha Brody, pictured in the photo, reenacted stages in the life of a fictitious female victim. Over the course of a week, Samantha dressed first as a vibrant, 1940s Jewish woman headed to work; on the second day she wore an armband that marked her as a Jew. On the third day she was bald, wearing a concentration camp uniform and looking sallow and dirty. By the 4th day she was not there at all. Students remembered her life on the 5th day by placing stones on a table lit with a remembrance candle in the middle.