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Participating in the JFR’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program

On Saturday, March 5, Matthew Sackstein became a Bar Mitzvah and honored living rescuer Knud Christiansen by participating in the JFR’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.  Matthew participated in the JFR’s invitation program, where each guest received a specialized invitation that honored Knud Christiansen’s legacy and explained the mission of the JFR.  More information about the JFR’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program can be found here. 

 Matthew also had the rare privilege of meeting Knud prior to his Bar Mitzvah, which was very meaningful for Matthew and his family.

Matthew Sackstein and rescuer Knud Christiansen, meeting before Matthew's Bar Mitzvah.


The story was also featured in  Newsday, where Matthew’s participation in the JFR Bar/Bat Mitzvah program and his meeting with Knud were highlighted.  Read the story here.

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Hearing from our students: Excerpts from the 2010 Annual Dinner essays written by high school students

Each year we invite schools from the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area to attend our annual dinner through our New York-New Jersey Schools Dinner Program.  Schools bring 8 juniors or seniors who are studying or who have studied the Holocaust.  We invite a variety of schools: public and private, Jewish and Catholic day, special needs and charter schools.  Students are required to write a brief essay after the dinner, sharing one aspect of their experience that they found moving or insightful.  We received outstanding essays from all of our schools.  Below are a few excerpts from exceptional essays – their words remind us why it is so important to educate the next generation about the Holocaust in general and rescue in particular. 

“…this dinner shed a new light on the Holocaust that I was blind to beforehand.” – Ethan, the Heschel School

 “Though I’ve read quite a few books and have watched movies that are related to this tragic event in history, I never really understood what it must’ve been like for the Jews living in Europe at the time.  However, that changed on the evening I attended the JFR’s ceremony…” – Sang-A, Stuyvesant High School

“I have never been moved to the point of tears when hearing, reading, or learning about the Holocaust.  That all changed on Tuesday, November 30….There is no way to fully explain the extent to which Mr. Misiuna has motivated and moved me.  At the very least, he made me more determined than ever to continue to do community service and care for others.” – Anna, the Heschel School

“That evening was truly wonderful, I learned that when people have the courage to do what’s right they make a wonderful impact in someone else’s life.” – Erica, The Churchill School

“Understanding all the risks these rescuers took is something we hear and appreciate, but it is difficult to actually understand what it entails.  Witnessing the reunion helped me understand the reality of righteous gentiles.” – Mia, the Heschel School

 “Wladyslaw Misiuna’s story is a testament to the fact that apathy and cruelty are not a given.  Acting as a bystander is a choice that the individual makes, just as being an upstander is a personal choice.”  – Emma, the Heschel School 

“It was a pure, untainted moment, when Mr. Misuna and Mrs. Marmurek walked onto the podium together.  Although it took more than a few seconds for them to reach the microphone, the clapping never wavered.  Every single person in the room had gotten to a point beyond their own ego, a point of reverence and respect. The dinner managed to move people to genuine admiration.”  – Massye, SAR Academy

“Marmurek and Misiuna embraced one another as though they were two halves of a magnet; it was beyond words.  Marmurek beheld the man that gave her life, the man that created more than ten lives as a result of the rescue.” – Ilana, the Heschel School

 “The school teacher honoree, Mr. Grimes, made me feel relieved that the legacy of the Holocaust will live on in schools throughout the U.S.A….Seeing Mr. Grimes get an award for…his class on the Holocaust made me feel good.  I now know that people everywhere don’t want to let the Holocaust be forgotten.” – Ben, SAR Academy

“Being a student of a modern-orthodox [Jewish] school, it was nice to see that people of many different beliefs can share some fundamental and universal values.” – Adin, SAR Academy

“Attending the dinner was an especially unique experience for me because I am a Muslim student.  In another part of the world, Muslims and Jews are constantly fighting each other in an endless cycle.  But as I found out at the dinner, religion does not have to play a role in helping people.  Christians decided to help Jews because they inherently knew that it was the right thing to do.  And if you see someone who needs help, you should help them no matter what race or religion they are.  It could be a Jew helping a Muslim, a Christian helping a Jew, black helping white, or anything.”  – Mahtab, Stuyvesant High School

“…I will never be able to justify the suffering of those who experienced the Holocaust, but I have learned the importance of recognizing beauty, even in the face of incomprehensible suffering.” – Jason, SAR Academy

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Knitting for Rescuers

The JFR’s charity knitting project is off to a great start! Here are thirteen beautiful, hand-made scarves we recently received.

For all you knitters and crocheters out there, participating in the JFR’s charity knitting project entails making scarves for rescuers in Poland, where the JFR has a distribution mechanism. Participants send their scarves to the JFR, and we then distribute them to the rescuers. If you are interested in participating in this project, please contact the JFR.

Diretor of Education Kristen Lefebvre and Senior Program Associate in Rescuer Support Agnieszka Perzan with some beautiful scarves.

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Educating in NYC: 2011 One-Day teacher education seminar

On Tuesday, January 18, 2011 the JFR hosted its annual One-day teacher seminar on the Holocaust at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York City.  We had a fantastic group of metro area teachers who spent the day learning from scholars and discussing, in break-out groups, how to teach what they had learned. 

Teachers listening to the lecture.

We were fortunate enough to have two New York City scholars come to lecture.  Dr. Henry Feingold, Professor Emeritus of history and an expert on Refugee Policy during the Holocaust, lectured about Refugee Policy in the morning.  In the afternoon, Dr. Atina Grossman gave a lecture about Jewish life during the Weimar Republic, a topic that is part of her own personal family history.  Both lectures were enthralling, and our group of teachers came away with new knowledge about both topics, as well as inspiration for ways to teach the Holocaust in the classroom. 

Dr. Grossman answering questions from the teachers.

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Studying with Scholars: The 2011 Advanced Seminar

Over the course of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, 23 educators, a JFR board member and the JFR Education Department met for the 2011 Advanced Seminar at the Newark Airport Hilton, where we studied, learned and discussed this year’s theme “Youth and the Third Reich” with five outstanding scholars.   Each scholar presented a sub-topic of this theme in great depth and helped participants come away with a profound understanding of the subject. 

The group of Advanced Seminar 2011 attendees.

We began the seminar with Professor Robert Jan van Pelt, who discussed with us the idea of Germany as a young nation, an idea that rose at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Robert Jan’s eye-opening discussion conveyed that it was the ideas associated with this youth movement that later propelled National Socialism. 

Professor van Pelt lectures as participants soak up knowledge.

We also welcomed Alexandra Zapruder, who lead a discussion about her book Salvaged Pages, a compendium that contains the diaries of young people who lived through the Holocaust.  She also played for teachers the recent film adaptation of her book, I’m Still Here.  Alexandra’s work is particularly valuable for teachers, who can use these two resources as teaching tools. 

Participants listen intently.

We also learned about the Nazification of the banking industry from Princeton’s Dr. Harold James, as a continuation from last year’s Advanced Seminar.  Using one case study of a Jewish banker, Professor James illuminated for us how, gradually, Germany’s banks became impacted and altered by the Third Reich.  

Dr. Harold James

We also had the pleasure of hosting an international guest scholar, Professor Thomas Weber from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.  Dr. Weber discussed with us his fascinating new book, Hitler’s First War, which addresses Hitler’s time in the German army during World War I, and how this experience influenced him greatly.  This discussion tied into the theme of “Youth in the Third Reich”, which Professor James discussed in a second lecture, because Hitler was a part of the young generation, the World War I generation that, we learned, wanted so badly to have a new Germany rise out of the ashes of the old one. 

Dr. Thomas Weber engaging with participants.

We ended the seminar with Dr. Debórah Dwork, who led a Socratic discussion about her book Children with a Star, which is a cornerstone in Holocaust studies for understanding the child experience during the Holocaust.  Participants addressed themes and ideas in the book and also asked her specific questions about choices she made when writing the book.

Dr. Dwork, answering questions about her book.

Each year the Advanced Seminar is held on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend because teaching about the lessons of the Holocaust is aligned with Dr. King’s vision.  Our teachers come to the Advanced Seminar in order to better educate their students about tolerance and what can happen if hate goes unchecked.  The JFR feels that these lessons are in the same spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.  As we learned about this difficult history, we remembered him and the impact he had on making humanity more tolerant.

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Working with NYC teachers

Each year the JFR offers a one-day seminar on the Holocaust for New York City metro area high school English and social studies teachers.  This year we will have Professor Henry Feingold (Professor Emeritus, American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies) and Professor Atina Grossman (Professor of History, The Cooper Union) speak about “Refugee Policy and Jewish Life in the Weimar Republic”. 

This year’s seminar will be held Tuesday, January 18, 2011 from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm at the Union for Reform Judaism.   The program is entirely free of charge, and a kosher lunch will be provided. 

There are still spots open for this event.  Registration is required.  To register please visit

For more information please contact Director of Education Kristen Lefebvre at 212-727-9955 or

Above: A girl burns banknotes to use as fuel. With rampant inflation during the Weimar Republic, such money was worthless for purchasing goods.

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Speaking in Cincinnati

Last week I visited one of our newest Holocaust Centers of Excellence: The Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education in Cincinnati, Ohio.  During my three-day visit I traveled around the region, speaking at the center, visiting with groups of students from the middle school through college level, and speaking to educators and community leaders.  I also had the privilege of seeing each one of our Cincinnati Lerner Fellows, and was able to speak to Rosie Sansalone Alway’s 8th grade literature class.  It was very gratifying to share my knowledge of rescue during the Holocaust and interesting to see and hear about what our Lerner Fellows in Ohio are doing to teach the Holocaust to their students.

Answering questions after giving a presentation for a public program at the center.

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Lighting the Hanukkah Candles

It is our tradition at the JFR to light candles during Hanukkah.  Last night we lit our menorah, a gift from Board Chairman Harvey Schulweis, to celebrate the final night of Hanukkah.  Although we have a mixed staff of different backgrounds and beliefs, we all came together to share in this special ritual. 

Development Program Associate Deborah Wax lighting the candles; staff members who knew the Hanukkah blessings sang them.

The JFR team, with our beautiful menorah lit for the final night of Hanukkah.

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Recognizing a Lerner Fellow

Larry Grimes and his wife.

At the dinner we also honored 2010 Lerner Fellow Larry Grimes, who was awarded the Robert I. Goldman award for exceptional dedication to Holocaust education.  After attending the JFR’s Summer Institute for Teachers and European Study Program this past year, Larry was able to institute a year-long Holocaust honors class at his school, Bayshore Christian School.  Larry’s dedication to educating his students about the Holocaust and his commitment to learning about the subject make him very deserving of the Goldman Award. 

Larry Grimes, giving a speech after receiving the Goldman Award.

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Honoring a Local Philanthropist

Last Tuesday, November 30 the JFR honored Newmark Knight Frank chairman Jeffrey Gural at its annual dinner at the Waldorf=Astoria.  The evening was memorable; with over 750 people in attendance we raised close to 1 million dollars!  The dinner chair was Barry Gosin, Jeff’s business partner, and he spoke about Jeff’s widespread philanthropic actions, and mentioned particularly the good Jeff has done for New York City.  Jeffrey spoke about the courage of righteous rescuers like Wladyslaw Misiuna and the importance of supporting the mission of the JFR. 

Dinner Chair Barry Gosin (left) and Dinner Honoree Jeffrey Gural (right)

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Reuniting a Rescuer and a Survivor

Wladyslaw Misiuna and Sara Marmurek reunited at the JFK airport

The two being honored at the annual dinner.

On Tuesday, November 23, rescuer Wladyslaw Misiuna and Sara Marmurk were reunited at the JFK airport – the two had not seen each other since the end of the war.  This much anticipated reunion was emotional and meaningful for the two as well as those who witnessed it.  Wladyslaw and Sara were then honored at our annual dinner a week later, where Sara Marmurek stated that her reunion with Wladyslaw “has given her life closure.”

Both had the opportunity to speak and express gratitude, adding to the very moving evening.

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Mourning in Birkenau

Remnants of a cremetorium in Birkenau.

Just as we spent one full day in Auschwitz, so too did we spend the entire next day in Birkenau, a camp that functioned differently but was equal in horror to Auschwitz.  We visited Barrack 1, where people lived in filth, with sleeping quarters for many on the dirt ground.  We visited other similar camp structures, where we are meant to imagine how people struggled to live in the most unimaginable living conditions.  We were also able to see the crematoria, many of which were dynamited toward the end of the war in order to destroy evidence of mass murder by this method.  When looking at the ruins of these structures and learning about how the crematoria and central sauna worked, it is very upsetting to realize the intricacy, detail, planning, and intelligence that went into their creation.  These structures are prime examples of how human progress can be used for pure evil.

The birch forest, where Jews selected for murder would await their death. The camp takes its name from these trees.

Another upsetting site for our group was the waiting area in the woods where arrivals from transports deemed unfit for work would await their deaths.  This site was especially important for our teachers who teach the book Night, which talks about the fear of these people who were forced to wait, afraid and uncertain, during the last moments of their lives.  It is also a reminder of the camp’s name, Birkenau, which means birch trees; the Nazis took something beautiful and pure in nature and made it a part of the camp.  The contrast of these trees in the camp, along with knowing that the woods were a waiting area for those who would be gassed impacted our entire group. 

Before leaving Birkenau we stopped at the spot in the road where transports disembarked and Dr. Mengele instantaneously determined the fate of so many.  Instead of helping people, as a doctor should, he pointed people to their deaths. 

The selection point, where prisoners were deemed fit or unfit for labor. Those deemed unfit were sent down this path, where they were then taken to a gas chamber and murdered.

As we turned and left the camp down the long road, we mourned those whose lives were stripped away and who were brutally murdered at this site.

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Trying to make sense of Auschwitz

The main road into Auschwitz.

We began what would be a very long day at Auschwitz.  Upon arrival, Robert Jan van Pelt gave a lecture just outside the camp gate, and I will never be able to look at barbed wire the same way again.  He began with the idea that a camp is “any place surrounded by barbed wire.”  We learned that barbed wire was originally created by a farmer in Illinois, and that it had, in fact, been used during World War I.  Unlike animals who can withstand the barbed wire, humans can be severely injured by barbed wire and it can even inflict death.  Additionally, barbed wire is such a powerful symbol of war and enslavement in the modern age.  With barbed wire, prisoners are exposed and visible to their capturers.  Likewise, the prisoner is able to see the outside world, but he or she is unable to reach it.  Barbed wire is not only a brutal tool of war and imprisonment, it is also a form of cruel psychological torture for those it bounds.

Professor van Pelt, teaching about concentration camps and barbed wire.

Looking at Auschwitz from the outside also forces one to think about the role of concentration camps in war.  The Nazis and Communists believed fervently in the usage of concentration camps, Robert Jan explain to us, as a means of gaining control through torture.  There are many theories of what constitutes a camp.  In Giorgio Agamben’s “What is a Camp?” he claims it is a place where your civil rights are suspended.  In a place like Auschwitz, however, the camp stripped prisoners not only of civil rights but also of basic human rights.  In Hannah Arendt’s “Origins on Totalitarianism,” she defines three tiers of camps, with Auschwitz falling into tier three, the most inhumane, where people become so sick and hungry that they are devoid of their individualism.

Before walking into Auschwitz we learned about the origins of the symbolic gate, with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI,” or “work sets you free.”  Aside from being a form of mockery, we learned that the sign was created by a Polish prisoner.  The “B” in “Arbeit” is upside-down, and the reason for this is unknown; perhaps it was an intentional design, or perhaps it was an act of defiance on behalf of the prisoner.  In December 2009 the sign was stolen and cut into pieces; it was later recovered, but the sign that currently hangs over the gate is a reproduction and not the original.

As our group entered the camp, we could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom entering as visitors, free to leave at will. 

We spent the entire day in Auschwitz.  Our time was very informative and included a guided tour by Pavel Savicki, head of Communication at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, of many of the exhibition barracks and the artifact restoration center.  While we learned and saw so much, it is difficult to write about our experience, as we learned about the unspeakable horrors that occurred inside the camp.  The same can be said of trying to communicate the prisoner experience; no words can truly depict the suffering of prisoners of Auschwitz.

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Touring Jewish Krakow

We drove from Lublin to Krakow, arriving at Krakow very late at night.  We then spent the entire next day touring Krakow.  The first place we visited was Podgorze, where the Jewish ghetto was located and which was and still is the worst section of Krakow and is separated from the rest of the city by the Vistula river.  A memorial now stands at the ghetto collection and deportation site, which is also the site of a terrible massacre.     

The restored cemetery in Krakow.


 We crossed into the main area of Krakow where we visited the still-intact Jewish quarter of the city, known as Kazimierz.  We visited the old Jewish cemetery, which was desecrated by the Nazis but has since been partially restored.  A wall stands in the cemetery made up of broken matzevot that could not be properly restored as burial markers.   

The wall made up of broken gravestones in the Krakow cemetery.


Additionally our group visited the only active synagogue of Krakow, the Remuh Synagogue, which is designed in the modern German style with the pulpit in front.  Our group noted how it differed from the Tykocin synagogue, which is in the Eastern style with the pulpit in the center.  Professor van Pelt explained that because German Jews came to Krakow during the 13th century when the black plague was rampant, there was a strong German influence in the traditions of Krakowian Jews.  We also learned that after the year 1800 Jews who could afford to do so were allowed to move out of the confines of the Jewish quarter into other parts of the city.  This helped our group to understand that Jews had a place in the mosaic of the city of Krakow; they did not exist in a separate realm as they did in other cities across Europe.  

Our group also had the opportunity to visit the Galicia Jewish Museum, where we were given a guided tour by the museum’s Director, Kate Craddy.  The museum’s permanent exhibition is a collection of photographs that document the lives of Jews in the Galicia region of Poland.  The museum and exhibit were conceptualized by the late Chris Schwarz, a photographer determined to show and teach about Jewish life in the region prior to the Holocaust. 

Following this visit our group had some free time in Krakow before we departed for Osweicim, the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz, where we would spend the next four days and nights.

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