Giving a Voice To Those That Are Silent

by Rosy Dardashtian, NSHA Parent

As a parent there are always school matters to attend to such as homework, conferences, calendars of activities – I could go on, thank goodness for e-mails and smartphones! Yet last night’s school matter was different.  My 13 year old daughter enthusiastically showed me a permission slip for her participation in North Shore Hebrew Academy’s Names, Not Numbers program in which Middle School students research, interview, film and document the story of a Holocaust survivor.  The program integrates journalism, film, and Holocaust studies in a way that is completely student driven.  After I read and signed the permission slip, my daughter logged onto her North Shore Hebrew Academy Middle School Google account and we watched the product of last year’s project. I was so impressed that the North Shore Hebrew Academy Middle School is offering our children the opportunity to contribute to the important task of documenting our Holocaust survivors and help create a project where they will develop a strong sense of sensitivity, compassion, chesed and Jewish identity through the deliverance of the film.  

For our family, there is another dimension to Names, Not Numbers because we know firsthand the importance of Holocaust documentation.  After watching the videos from last year’s Names Not Numbers project my daughter and I started to talk about the many ways this project is so personal to us. We spoke of our memories of one early Fall morning when we were waiting for the elementary school bus.  Our quiet elderly neighbor, who lives across from the bus stop, walked over to us to say good morning.  I did not know much about my neighbor at the time and generally did not see him often.  But that particular morning, he inquisitively asked me a lot of questions.  “Which house do you live in?  What school does your daughter attend?” I replied I live a few houses away and my daughter attends the North Shore Hebrew Academy.  Surprisingly, my neighbor responded, “You… are Jewish?” Yes, I replied.  Without further conversation, he walked away.  Each morning after for the next few days, the same scene would play out.  Again, “Good Morning. Which house do you live in? What school does your daughter attend? Where are you from? Are you Jewish?” I didn’t know what to think and I couldn’t help but wonder why this elderly man was so curious about my faith and heritage?  Until, one warm fall morning when my neighbor was wearing short sleeves. Of course we would say our good mornings, but this time there was more information. My daughter looked at his arm and so did I.  And there it was… I saw the numbers tattooed on his arm. I was shocked. I asked my neighbor where he was born.  He responded that he was born in Hungary and I did not ask any other questions. But when he began to ask me his usual inquiries, I answered all of his with a bit more information.  “I live in the third house to your right, my kids attend North Shore Hebrew Academy, yes I am Jewish and I was born in Israel, but before Israel my family lived in Bulgaria. So we in fact are neighbors.” My neighbor was pleasantly surprised – a Bulgarian Israeli Jew living near by! This new relationship truly affected my daughter and even myself. Until this day, my daughter remembers the numbers tattooed on his arm, but I remember the conversations.  Who would think waiting for the school bus in the morning would be so emotional.  As my neighbor walked away and the school bus approached our stop, I felt blessed! As any Jewish mother would do after an emotional ordeal, I thanked Hashem and felt blessed for my family’s health, for my children’s opportunity to have a Jewish education, and blessed that my grandparents were so fortunate to survive the Holocaust and that they were protected. 

The Names, Not Numbers program is particularly important to me and my daughter because we have always had a family focus on remembering our past. My grandparents are Bulgarian Jews, originating from Sepharid, Spain, speaking Ladino and keeping to Sephardic Jewish traditions.  Hungary, where my neighbor was from, and Bulgaria were both on the same side during World War II – Nazi Germany’s side. But, Bulgarians protested the Jewish discrimination and harassment policies the Germans implemented whereas the Hungarians adopted them. Deportation of Hungarian Jews started in 1944, but in Bulgaria my grandparents were protected from deportations.   Thank goodness the Bishops of Bulgaria, and the King of Bulgaria (although controversial), did not allow the deportations of the Jews.  In fact, the Bishop from Plovdiv, Bulgaria stood in front of the train tracks and said he would lie down on the tracks if the trains moved. Yet the fate of my great uncles, aunts and cousins in Thessaloniki, Greece was not the same. On  Kristallnacht,  “The Night of Broken Glass,” the fate of all Jews in Europe changed.  Kristallnacht was a night where Nazis in Germany vandalized and terrorized, Jewish homes, synagogues, schools and businesses, killing Jews and arresting some 30,000 others. Thereafter the turning point towards more violence and harassment against the Jews was implemented with a final solution of genocide against the Jews. Yet the stories survive. 

Seeing my daughter serve as the next generation of custodians of the history of our people and participate so passionately in Names, Not Numbers instills me with a tremendous sense of pride.  Our children are being taught and understand their responsibility to teach the world about what happened to us and are now bringing light to this dark time by commemorating those who survived and perished. From my elderly neighbor, to my surviving grandparents from Bulgaria, to my family in Thessaloniki, to so many other Jewish families, the Names, Not Numbers project at the North Shore Hebrew Academy Middle School interconnects family, history, heritage, memories, compassion and strength. To have young Jewish students build awareness and compassion strengthens our Jewish community. This project gives a voice, a young voice, and a “name” to those with numbers, even those who are silent.