Turning 'darkness into light': Students share Holocaust survivors' stories

Waterford — The warning came from a young man driving a truck of border fighters passing through Minsk: Get your children to safety, he told Oleg Elperin's mother, because the Nazis are coming.

It was June 1941 — a time that Elperin marked as the end of his childhood, even though he was only 9 — and luckily his mother heeded the truck driver's advice and fled with her two sons just days before the city was burned.

Years later, after his family returned to Minsk, Elperin was followed and harassed by bullies hurling anti-Semitic slurs and threats of violence.

"He got tired of it and one day ... he went to the biggest one and hit him in the head with a brick. The bullies never bothered him again," said Alexis Connor, one of several Norwich Free Academy students presenting Elperin's story Wednesday as part of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut's Encountering Survivors program.

Run by the federation's Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center and not part of official classwork, the program offers small groups of high school students a personalized glimpse of Holocaust survivors' harrowing experiences.

Over the last several months, the teens sat and talked with survivors and their family members, and visited New York City to see the Tenement Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, according to program coordinator Tammy Kaye. The students then shared survivors' stories in a ceremony at Waterford High School on Wednesday, with program volunteers lighting candles in memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, as well as local survivors who since have died.

The students described Elperin, a former physics teacher in Russia who immigrated to the U.S. and lived in New London before he died in December, as someone who remained positive in the face of hatred and misery.

"He took the darkest moments in his life and turned them into the brightest light possible with his amazing personality," NFA student Onix Burgos Rodriguez said. Later, NFA teacher Shannon Andros and students lined up to hug Elperin's daughter, Helen Elperina, a physics teacher who lives in Old Saybrook, who encouraged the audience to live a happy life, as her father did.

Dominic Brunaccioni, one of several Waterford High School students who learned of survivors Mina and Carl Gastfrajnd from their daughter Mona Levin, said that, like many students, he'd read "Night" by Elie Wiesel in a middle school English course. But he said lessons on the Holocaust "were not as prevalent as you might think it would be, or as it should be. This is an amazing program. They let us into their homes and offered us food and opened up to us."

The Waterford students' presentation included a map tracking the nearly 2,000 combined miles Mina and Carl Gastfrajnd walked or rode in carts and carriages over four years across Europe, from concentration camp to concentration camp as the fighting encroached, and eventually back to their homes.

Brunaccioni said a story that stuck with him was that during a "death march" from one Nazi camp to another, Carl Gastfrajnd had to wear the same wool sweater for more than a year. Fleas eventually infested the sweater, and to Brunaccioni's surprise, the survivor described the infestation as a good thing, because the fleas became "the only reliable source of food."

Ledyard High School students met with Romana Strochlitz Primus, who inspired them with stories of the subtle yet powerful resistance of her parents, Sigmund and Rose Strochlitz. Rose used her skills in both Polish and German to falsify the numbers of Jews who'd died in concentration camps — tricking the Nazis to provide more supplies and food.

Plainfield High School students met with Joseph Biber, who shared the escape and survival stories of his parents, Jacob and Eva Biber, forced more than once to hide in the woods as the Nazis slaughtered nearly their entire community.

Jerry Fischer, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, described anti-Semitism and all forms of racism and religious hatred as a "virus." By placing young people face-to-face with Jews in the community, the program fights against Holocaust denial and the chances that survivors' stories are ever "dismissed as a fairy tale," Fischer said. He added that this year's program comes amid attacks on synagogues, mosques and churches.

"You are the antivirus," Fischer told students. "You're the ones who will be able to both testify to the Holocaust and testify against the hatred of Jews, as well as against the hatred of any other religion or ethnic group. Because if there is a universal lesson to the Holocaust ... that lesson is that we're all human beings and we all need to treat each other and respect each other as human beings. That there is no such thing as sub-humans, and no such thing as a superior race."

Ben Cooper, a World War II combat medic who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp, reinforced that message by telling students that the things he witnessed traumatize him to this day but still inspire him to fight against injustice.

"Save humanity, stop hatred and bullying," said Cooper, 97. "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

b.kail@theday.com

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