Apr 28, 2009

The Blechner Family Story

I wrote briefly about meeting Mark Blechner in my last post and I wanted to follow up on his family's amazing story.  

Mark's father was one of four brothers all born in Germany in the early 1900's.  Each survived the Holocaust through very different means.  Mark's uncle, Oskar, was on board the St. Louis and when the ship returned to Europe, he was luckily selected to go to England.  

How did he come to be selected to go to England?  Mark told me that at one point before Oskar traveled on the St. Louis, when the family was investigating ways to escape Nazi Germany, Oskar's mother had been writing to friends in England and trying to get admitted there.  

When the JDC worked to determine which passengers aboard the St. Louis to send where, they came across files that noted that the Blechners had tried to gain entrance to England or knew people there and so they assigned Oskar to go to England.  Talk about the hand of fate...

Mark's father was not so lucky.  He spent the war in multiple concentration camps and somehow survived.  Mark explained that his father never talked about his experiences until he was in his late 80's.  At Passover every year, his father would cry when they got to the part in the seder about the mortar.  Mark would ask him, "Why are you crying?"  And his father would say, "I used to work with bricks, that's all.  Now, leave me alone."

Then one time, Mark went to visit the National Holocaust Museum in D.C. and was looking at a giant photo-mural of prisoners laboring in a work-camp.  There, he saw his father.  He finally understood why his father cried during the seder--that, in fact, he had worked with bricks. 

Mark's father began to open up about his experience and shared with Mark many of his traumatic memories.  Mark also has an amazing collection of family artifacts that he shares with students during school visits, including a postcard his father sent while a prisoner at Auschwitz, and also the postcard he sent immediately after his liberation from Belsen.

To learn more about the Blechner Family, visit www.blechner.com.

Apr 22, 2009

Maimonides School on Holocaust Remembrance Day

I had the priveledge of speaking to the middle school (6th-8th grades) at the Maimonides School in Brookline yesterday on Holocaust Remembrance Day or "Yom Hashoah."

My presentation included history of the voyage of the St. Louis and also what it was like to research and write a novel on such an important subject. I was so impressed by the students--they were really interested in the subject and asked smart questions. I was also surprised to learn that only a handful knew about the St. Louis. For many people, especially younger generations, the St. Louis really is "a forgotten chapter" of the Holocaust.

Part of my presentation includes a power-point using archival photographs from the actual voyage and it was incredible to see how the kids reacted to the photos. Some of the photos are of kids their own age and I could see them imagining themselves as passengers whose fates hung in the balance.

I also sprinkled in excerpts from my novel and it was exciting to see them connect with the characters. One student asked, "What happens to Thomas?" Of course, I couldn't exactly reveal that but I was glad that he cared about him enough to wonder.

Comprehending the 11 million lives lost in the Holocaust is a daunting task and this one boy's question, about my fictional character no less, made me realize how important it is to find a personal way to connect with history and trauma. It seems as if the best way to remember the people who died is to learn about a select few at a time. To immerse yourself in their stories and imagine yourself in their lives, presented with their choices, or lack of choices.

After my presentation, Mark Blechner, an alum of Maimo and also a father of a senior there, spoke about his family's story during the Holocaust. Mark's father was one of four brothers who all survived, although they were forced to take very different paths to surivival.

Mark's uncle, Oskar Blechner, was a passenger on the St. Louis. He was sent to England and survived the war there in relative safety. Mark's father lived through multiple concentration camps and came to the U.S. after the war. Mark shared some amazing artifacts and stories about his family and perhaps I'll write more about those in another blog. It was an honor to meet him and learn more about his family. You can also visit the Blechner Family website to find out more: www.blechner.com.