For several years I have kept a clear glass vase filled with smooth round stones. It first sat on my desk in my art classroom at Shadowlawn Middle School, then followed me to the local high school. Since my classroom now is virtual, the vase sits on a corner of the desk in my home office where I can view it every day. There are thirty one stones in the jar. The first thirty put there represent over 55,000 Jewish children each, for a total of the 1.5 millon Jewish children killed in the Holocaust. They were placed there by students in my honors art class on Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remebrance Day, six years ago. The thirty first stone is for my friend, Sonia Weitz.
If you are wondering if I am Jewish, the answer is no. But I do honor the victims of the Holocaust on Yom Ha”Shoah. Let me tell you why. I began teaching the lessons of the Holcaust several years ago as a way to reach out to my students who were struggling with racial conflicts. Using the Holocaust took the black and white out of the story, but still showed what happens when hate and prejudice goes unchecked. I learned as much as the students did. I watched kids who were once angry and rude and violent change as a result of what they learned during one simple six week unit in my classroom. I was working with a group called Facing History and Ourselves and through them I met Sonia Weitz. We became friends, but we never spoke face to face. Our correspondance was purely over email; I lived in Memphis, Sonia in Boston. But she was very interested in what my classes were doing and we frequently wrote back and forth. One of my projects with Facing History was to create, by writing and illustrating, picture books about Holocaust related subjects. One of my students wrote about Sonia. Her story is amazing. As a teenager she would surviuve several concentration camps, including Plazow, the camp made famous in Schindler’s List. She had promised her mother that she would tell what happened if she lived. (Her book of her storya nd poems is called I Promised I Would Tell.) She wrote poems and kept a journal during her imprisonment. One poem, “Victory” tells the story of the time when she snuck into the men’s barracks to visit her father. A young prisoner in his barracks was playing a harmonica and Sonia’s father asked her to dance. While the young man played the instrument he could have been killed for posssessing, Sonia and her father had their first and only dance. A week later he was sent to another camp, she never saw him again. After we sent Sonia a copy of “Dancing With My Father” she and I struck up a regular email correspondance. I owuld ask her dvice and she would encourage me as a teacher. I sent her one of the first copies of my children’s novel about the Holocaust, When The Butterflies Flew Away. She called it “a wonderful addition to Holocaust literature.” And then, in that sme email, asked me if I would be the person to share her story after she was gone. I agreed, never knowing that it would be less than two years that she would be gone.
Why do I teach about the Holocaust? Why do I write about it? Because the lessons that can be learned are so strong and so important, but also because I promised Sonia that I would tell. Every year on Yom Ha’Shoah I will honor her memory and what she overcame. But I hope that I will also always honor those who did not survive, by sharing their story as well. No, I am not Jewish. But I still remember those who lost thier lives for no reason at all.
Monday, April 8th, is Holocaust Remembrance Day this year. I encourage everyone to take a moment and remember those who were lost, regardless of your religious beliefs. Take a moment and think about how you can make difference in someone else’s life, how you can change one behavior or tell one story that might inspire or help someone else. I’ll be wearing a necklace that has a medallion that is a replica of the skylight at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And I’ll be thinking of my friend Sonia.
And I’ll keep writing about the Holocaust. (Because I promised I would tell.)
You can check out my books on the subject at http://www.booksbylynnmurphy.com.