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Survivors share the past at Cafe Europa

Shevi Genuth

Around the tables, high school students sit together with senior citizens, chewing on pizza and hamentashen and surrounded by pictures of members of the Hitler Youth movement. They speak in hushed tones while murmurs of "camps" and "liberation" are heard around the room. The teenagers listen attentively with serious expressions and ask questions to pry more information from the memories of those relaying their life experiences.

Judy Josephs, right, a Holocaust survivor, shares her story with teens at Café Europa.
The group gathered at the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley for the latest session of Euro Café, where middle and high school students from around Rockland come and speak with local Holocaust survivors. The program, co-sponsored by the Holocaust Museum and JCC Rockland, meets several times throughout the year. The next session is Tuesday, May 5 at the JCC, 450 West Nyack Rd., West Nyack.
Judy Josephs tells the students about her experience of being a hidden child during the war. But the telling isn't always easy.

 "[Euro Café] is not my favorite place to be," Josephs declares matter-of-factly. "It brings up too many painful memories but I have to share my story." Josephs' tale of righteous gentiles who helped save her during the Holocaust makes the history lesson real for the younger generation.

"Judy had so many names and identities" says Jordan Trinagle, a junior at Solomon Schecter in Westchester.

Trinagle comes to Euro Café each year with a higher level of understanding the Holocaust. "Every year I become more mature and can understand more of what's going on - it becomes a part of me." she states. She has come to realize how important it is to hear the survivors' stories "especially for the people who deny."

Michael Colon, an eleventh grader at Clarkstown North High School, marvels at the strength the seniors display while telling their histories. "Even though they are victims of war, they are not victims of life," he says.

For many of the survivors who come to Euro Café, the program becomes an essential part of their mission to educate the younger generation. Sidney Fischer, originally from Auschwitz, Poland, comes to every session with his wife, Selma. While he enjoys seeing friends at the meetings, he also emphasizes the importance of talking to the students "because when this generation is gone, no one can explain it."

At the start of the latest meeting, Lisa Stenchever, educational coordinator at the museum, introduces everyone in attendance. About a dozen individuals gather around to state their name, about half of them Holocaust survivors. After this, a light supper is available, as it is for every Euro Café meeting. Then the group separates as the students sat at various tables and listen to the story of the survivor sitting with them.

For each session, organizers representing the JCC, the museum, as well as Jewish Family Service of Rockland decide on a series of questions about life before, during, and after the war which will help the group initiate conversation. Carol H. King, a social worker for JFS who moderates each meeting, feels that through these personal questions "the children come to see the person for who they are. They are not just survivors, they are people." Often, the questions are in context of an upcoming holiday, allowing the teens and survivors to share in the tradition together.

The passing of time is one of the main focuses of the Euro Café program. As King points out, these teens are probably the last generation to have direct contact with survivors and the opportunities to hear first hand accounts are running out. Many of the seniors who attend the meetings come for this very reason. Nathan Freund, a survivor who did not speak of his experiences in the Holocaust for almost 60 years, started attending Euro Café meetings after someone called him selfish for not sharing his story. While Holocaust deniers abound, Freund faced the reality that he must tell his story to the next generation as they are the ones who will remain to speak out about the atrocities of the war.

Shoshana Potts, teen and tween director for JCC Rockland, believes Euro Café to be integral for the students who attend. "The Holocaust is such an important part of our history," Potts explains. "It is poignant for the teens to interact with people who went through it." For Cathie Izen, the former teen director and current parenting director at the JCC, Euro Café also serves to teach the children a lesson about compassion and understanding. "They gain knowledge and sensitivity toward all people [and learn] not to let this happen again to anybody," Izen said.

The concept for Euro Café grew out of Café Europa, a Holcaust museum program, which allowed survivors to socialize with each other and speak of shared experiences. There, survivors felt they had finally found a place where they were understood. Yet many still worried what would happen in the future when these survivors are no longer around to tell their stories. It became imperative that the next generation be included to hear these first-hand accounts of survival.

Izen, whose relationship with many of the teens through the JCC allowed the program to be successful, helped create Euro Café, after taking her teenage Mitzvah Makers on a routine visit to local nursing homes. "One of the first residents they visited," Izen remembers, "started to cry when she saw us come in with Rosh Hashana bags." The resident, Rachel, explained to the group that she gave up on her Judaism because of her experiences in the Holocaust and now is touched by the Jewish children wishing everyone a happy holiday.

After that moving experience, the teens met more and more elderly, accented individuals who were eager to share their stories with the young group. So about five years ago, the museum and the JCC teamed up to create Euro Café, a forum in which students would have the opportunity to sit down with survivors.

Each meeting closes with the group speaking about what they learned from the discussions. King reminds the teenagers at this time that they are now forever linked to the survivor whose story they just bared witness to. "The children take this legacy and make it their own," she points out. "It becomes a shared experience."

And that experience remains with the teenagers as they leave the Euro Café meeting. Raina Pick, in eleventh grade at Suffern High School, feels that speaking with the survivors "makes me more attached to religion." As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Pick values the lessons she learns during the sessions. "It makes me want to stand up for what we believe in."

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April 2009