The WHSAD community has been privileged over these last three years to work with Project Witness, “a nonprofit Holocaust resource center” whose mission “merges judicious scholarship with cutting-edge media to provide thought-provoking Holocaust educational resources for schools, community centers, and lay readers.”
For two years, students listened to the insights from Ms. Ruth Gruener, who despite her experiences during the Holocaust always brought a message of hope and love.
After Ruth’s passing, WHSAD Senior, Deselle Thompson, who authored the aforementioned articles, wrote an obituary which you may find here: https://projectwitness.org/ruth-gruener-obituary/
This year, Ms. Toby Levy brought her story and, much like Ruth did, emphasized a message of hope and awareness. Before Ms. Levy’s talk, WHSAD students and staff read about her life and dug deep into some of her wise words. Through classroom conversations, written analysis, and visual works of art, students gained knowledge about events that at first seemed to be distant but contain similarities to many modern occurrences.
Here is Sophomore, Joseph Perez’, response to one quote from Ms. Levy’s New York Times article that we read in Mr. Koestner’s Sophomore English class: “I keep very busy, and it helps me a lot. I am trying not to give up. But what is getting me down is that I am losing a year. And this bothers me terribly. I’m 87 years old, and I lost almost a full year.”
I think this quote represents Ms. Levy’s awareness of her life and the world around her, she realizes how her life is fleeting and that she’s growing old. She had her childhood forcefully ripped away from her and now her golden years are getting forced away from her, albeit not even remotely similar to her childhood it’s still almost poetic in a cruel, almost Shakespearean way. But Ms. Levy tackles her hardships in a unique way; she handles them with a certain grace. During the Holocaust she was confined and forced to stay silent to live, trapped in a small box filled to the brim with people; the only window was a small hole in the side of the box. It must have been so suffocating and traumatizing and quite frankly I think I would rather die than be trapped in that box with other people for even a week. Ms. Levy lived through all of the harsh conditions she was forced in, even if it cost her the childhood that she desired so much; she lived. She dedicated her life after this critical point in history to spread awareness and educate others about the Holocaust and that’s what makes Covid such a poetic thing to happen, again she is forced into her box but this time she’s free, she’s alive not forced into an unnamed casket with her family. She gets up out of a bed with a mattress, looks through her windows at the beautiful landscape around her, eats food and most importantly, she stays determined to share her story throughout it all. Toby Levy is an amazing person, she’s determined to keep on living through the circumstances given to her and she stayed strong throughout her journey to share and spread her story even if she had to relive it every time she did so.
In this video, Ms. Levy shares her story with WHSAD.
WHSAD’s Assistant Principal for the Humanities, Mr. D’Amato, offered these words regarding WHSAD’s work with Project Witness.
In 2020 right before the pandemic started, we were introduced to Project Witness by Toby Moskovits, the CEO of one of our long-term partners, Heritage Equity. I met with Ruth Lichtenstein, founder and director of Project Witness, who immediately opened up all of her resources to our English and Social Studies teachers. We were given access to many primary sources that the teachers use in their lessons. We also got access to a curriculum that was designed for students. Over the years, we have worked collaboratively to create tasks. Our teachers get to work with an Educator with Project Witness, and we truly feel like we are part of the Project Witness Family.
Each year the students have had the honor to hear from a Holocaust survivor. The first two years, it was Ruth Gruener, and this year it was Toby Levy. These events become a dialogue between the students and survivors.
The goal of working with Project Witness has always been, in my opinion, a way of building a two-way bridge between our school and the community at large. It has been wonderful to see our students learn about resiliency from the survivors. It is always so powerful to see how students react when they hear from a survivor that the survivor does not seek revenge. Rather revenge is being able to tell a story of what was done to them and to do good things.
For next year we hope to show what we have done with Project Witness and involve more schools in not only using the resources but also hearing from the survivors. With the survivors being so old the number of survivors is going down, so our job is to make sure they are never forgotten and we continue to do good and be kind to one another.
In addition to Ms. Levy speaking with the larger WHSAD community, she also took time to talk with three of WHSAD’s student reporters. Below is the video from that session and each student’s reflections on the experience.
Sheena Luke, WHSAD Sophomore
Ms. Levy sharing her story to the school gave students, including myself, a greater insight about the awful experiences that Jewish people had to endure on a daily basis during that time period. While the Holocaust is covered in our school curriculum every year, hearing a survivor telling their story and reliving the event will always have more of an impact on me than reading words off of a page, as I get to hear the emotion and strength behind every sentence she shares. Additionally, during the interview with Ms. Levy, she detailed that through telling her story, one thing that she would like students to take away from it is that they should always try to stop the spread of hate within their own communities, whether it be them not contributing to it themselves, or stepping in to stop it when they see it. While something like this can appear extremely small in hindsight, it points out the fact that individuals can make a positive impact in a bad situation and ultimately shape the future of someone else, similarly to the mother and son that accepted and sheltered Ms. Levy and her family, even when it put themselves at risk.
Alexander Diaz, WHSAD Sophomore
Talking to Ms. Levy and asking questions about her experience during the Holocaust is something historic on its own. Throughout this brief interview, we got to see a little more perspective in her situation in a tragic historic moment. I hope this interview sheds light on some people who don’t know what the Holocaust is or know little about it.
George Pinto, WHSAD Freshman
I’m so grateful Ms. Levy took the time to talk to us about her experiences and gave us this amazing opportunity to hear a first hand account of what the Holocaust was really like and how difficult it was for those affected. It was truly amazing to hear how, despite the terrible things she has witnessed in her life, she was filled not with hate but kindness. She said the only way you can hurt someone is if you hate, and how could she? After all of the discrimination, the hiding, the violence, she was filled with gratitude, not only for her survival, but for her family sticking with her, for the kindness of the Americans in New Orleans, but most importantly for freedom. She said that the best years of her life were right after the Holocaust, because even though they had no food, no money, no clothes, no home, they had their family, and they had freedom, and nothing else mattered.