For the past four years, the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project has sponsored a trip to the Safe Haven Museum and Education Center for the ninth-grade class at Southern Cayuga Central School. Safe Haven tells the story of 982 mainly Jewish refugees who fled Europe in the U.S. government’s Safe Haven program in 1944. The refugees from 18 European countries were brought to the former Fort Ontario Army Camp in Oswego. This camp was the only refugee shelter for Holocaust victims in the United States. The refugees were the guests of President Franklin Roosevelt, and signed an agreement to leave America at the end of the war.
I talked about the impact of this trip with a student who made the trip in 2016. I asked her what she remembered about the experience: “It was a very cold and rainy day. I thought it was interesting that we treated them like prisoners in a way. They couldn’t leave camp without permission. I always wondered why they stopped with only 1,000 people.”
I next interviewed six ninth-graders who had just returned from this year’s trip on May 25. These students discussed the barracks where families lived in very tight quarters. The first student interviewed was shocked to learn that, as soon as the war ended, Holocaust victims had to leave the country. Some went to Canada or other countries, and eventually made their way back to the states. They had curfews and were not really given the freedoms enjoyed by American citizens. One student mentioned that people in the town of Oswego were friendly and helpful. He was especially impressed with Oswego’s school principal, who made every effort that children from the camp were well-integrated into classrooms, and treated well. This same student noted that students whose families came from Germany were very helpful — especially if they knew the German language. A Boy Scout troop also welcomed refugees. There was general agreement that the trip helped the students understand how brave those brought to the haven were. They also agreed that it would be impossible to really know the terror that Holocaust victims experienced.
Our conversation progressed to a discussion of the importance of providing safe havens today. The issue of school shootings has challenged everyone’s senses of safety. As the students continued to discuss the topic, it became clear that they feel very safe in their own school. They all know the names of their school safety officers and admire them. The current protocols for school visitors provide safety, but the greatest safety feature is that they live in a “small town” where “everybody knows everybody.” One student explained, “If someone is new and different, we get to know them. It doesn’t take long for us to understand even someone with very different experience. We accept people for who they are. We appreciate anyone that wants to live and work in our community.”
The advantages of these students’ situations contrast with those of large urban areas, where it is impossible to know everyone you encounter. The students talked about a classic young adult book, “The Outsiders,” that they had just finished reading. The book illustrates the problem of “us vs. them” thinking, and the barriers of getting to really know someone because of economic, religious or other social restraints. The students concluded that they are so happy to live in a school where they can really get to know their classmates, and have adults that support tolerance.
In thinking about these conversations, I reread a summary of current research at Princeton University: “Professor Fiske’s research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power. We begin with the premise that people easily categorize other people, especially based on race, gender, and age. Going beyond such categories, to learn about the individual person, requires motivation. Social relationships supply one form of motivation to individuate, and our work shows that being on the same team or depending on another person makes people go beyond stereotypes. Conversely, people in power are less motivated to go beyond their stereotypes.” (https://psych.princeton.edu/person/susan-fiske)
It is clear to me that the students I talked to have the motivation described by Dr. Fiske. I was reminded of another teen who had similar motivation. She lived in cramped quarters because of the intolerance that brought 982 people to our state. In 1944, Anne Frank wrote, “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the Aurora Free Library, the King Ferry Food Pantry and ABC Cayuga, as well as the Anne Frank Tree Project and the Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She also coordinates a lunchtime volunteer program at Southern Cayuga Central School.
Carl Sagan loved stars and books. “Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” I wanted our conversations about stars to be both ageless and magical. So I began with books.
As I entered the second-grade classroom at Emily Howland Elementary School, I had a picture book, “A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars” by Seth Fishman and Isabel Greenberg. After reading the book, we wrote the number: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. As soon as we wrote it, the real number had changed. Estimates of stars are tricky business, because we could take all of the telescopes on our planet and not begin to see the universe. We need to read and talk to lots of geniuses in math and science to begin to understand.
After we agreed that we had more research to do, we decided we could still talk about stars. Our favorite star was the sun. Second graders appreciated what the sun does for our planet and all the other planets in our solar system. The discussion of the sun caused some to worry. Stars do explode, and if they get too close to us, we might explode. Someone reminded us that when stars blow up, they make new stars. Generally, we trust our sun. We really can’t get along without it.
Our discussion moved from the sun to all the stars. They are beautiful and they all have different names, different sizes and different ages. They are like people, and each star is as unique as each person. I told the second grade that they thought like scientists. They agreed and wanted more books and more geniuses. I shared Carl Sagan’s name with them. Their last bit of advice was to always know where to find the North Star and I would never get lost. My parting words were those of Carl Sagan: “We are made of star stuff.”
My next conversation was with a neighbor’s son, who had grown up watching Carl Sagan’s PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which aired in 1980. Books based on the series, as well as countless re-showings and video editions, have allowed him to totally absorb Sagan’s cosmos. I asked Owen to return to second grade and tell me what he thought about stars at an early age. “The sun was a favorite star as a young child. I loved all it gave us. As I got older, I loved that we were made of stardust and that without stars there would be no ‘us.’ I also loved watching my grandparents listen to a favorite song by Nat King Cole, ‘Stardust’ and dance.”
Owen has never stopped thinking and reading about stars and our universe. His biggest dream is that in future generations, we will know more about manipulating stars and we could stabilize life on planets that depend on stars. Like all conversations about stars, Owen becomes philosophical when asked what he would like to tell everyone about stars. “There is infinite variety in stars. Every star is different, with a different combination of materials. The older the stars, the more varied their materials. The death of a star is inevitable, but without stars we would not exist.”
I was always delighted that any group I spoke with could sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” without missing a word. Surprisingly, it was high school students who first talked about wishing on stars. They debated the strength of wishing on the first star you saw at night versus a shooting star. I am still thinking about a comment, “I have a friend who will never wish on a star again. She is so tired of wishing and then having nothing come true.” She reminded her friend that like wishes, stars can explode, but looking at stars is always worthwhile.
The illustration of a new constellation called Cheetah was created by a precocious 6-year-old who loves cheetahs and could easily envision her constellation. She also loves “Pegasus” and is almost 90-percent sure that a winged horse does exist in the universe. We agreed to keep reading and observing.
Like all good conversations, this one is ongoing. If you would like to eat pizza, meet the best and the brightest of our Southern Cayuga math and science students, read a book with me, talk about our planetarium and see the film “Hidden Figures,” come to Southern Cayuga Central School at 6 p.m. Friday, March 9. “Hidden Figures” is the story of the four brilliant African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn. The event is sponsored by the Anne Frank Tree Committee and is free to the public. Join us and continue the conversation.
By the time the Seneca Community Players’ last dress rehearsal of “The Diary of Anne Frank” ended, many of the Southern Cayuga Central School District students in attendance were rapt.
The students were in the audience for a question-and-answer session with the show’s actors Thursday at the theater, located at the Partridge Building in Seneca Falls. The talkback was set up by the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, a district organization meant to promote education and peace.
Around 14 students and some adults saw the play, which is based on the personal written entries of Anne Frank, the renowned teenager who hid in the annex of a warehouse with her family and four others during the Holocaust. She was found with the others, and ultimately died in a concentration camp. Of the eight people in the annex, only her father, Otto Frank — played in the Seneca Community Players’ production by Steve Mitchell — survived World War II.
The tree project’s name refers to a tree Frank wrote about in her diary. The tree sat outside the annex, and she viewed it as a symbol of hope. After the tree was blown down in 2010, The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect selected the Southern Cayuga district and 10 other sites in the country to receive and plant its saplings.
The theater’s stage was on a lower floor of the building with the windows shut. From the moment the Franks enter the annex to when the Nazi officers haul the eight victims away, most of the actors were on stage for the entire production. During intermission, the performers silently went about their characters’ day-to-day activities as the stage lights stayed on. The break was only signaled by the house lights brightening and a woman standing by the theater door.
After the curtain call, the actors stayed on stage to field questions. Southern Cayuga student Kadrian Rossbach, 14, said the show was interesting and “amazing to watch,” before asking the actors how it felt bringing actual human beings to life.
Susie Cornett, who played Anne’s mother, Edith Frank, said she drew from experiences with her own two daughters to depict Edith’s conflicts with Anne.
“All of you girls or teenagers probably butt heads with your mother at times, right?” Cornett asked as the young audience murmered in agreement.
Cornett said she also connected to Edith through reading about her and constantly thinking about how Edith would react to every line and moment.
Eric Jansen, the play’s director, pitched the idea of students doing a question-and-answer session with the actors, and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project loved the idea. Speaking on Oct. 4, Jansen said he was “elated” to have students talk to the performers.
He said he and the entire cast and crew felt a responsibility to be accurate, down to the color scheme of a prayer shawl and the fringes on the corner of the garment. He said cast members did their own deep dives into research, even learning the Yiddish lyrics of songs the characters sing to comfort themselves and others.
The production used the version of the script by Wendy Kesselman, who revised the original version of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Kesselman’s revision included material from Anne Frank’s diary that had been omitted from earlier scripts, like her writing about her attraction to women’s bodies — which was greeted with subdued, uncomfortable laughs and amused looks from some of the teenagers during the dress rehearsal.
Jansen believes Kesselman’s changes amounted to a fuller depiction of the teenager as she actually was, from her hopes and dreams to her burgeoning sexuality. The director also felt it was important to show the emotional high and lows those eight people experienced while sequestered between the same few walls for 25 months.
“They had real trials and real tribulations, and real joy and real expectations that we have without being in those extraordinary circumstances,” Jansen said.
At the talkback, 13-year-old Riley Binns asked the actors who played the Nazi officers what it was like to portray hated figures. Tom Hoster, who played Karl Silberbauer — who actually arrested Anne Frank and the others — likened it to film actors playing villains, and said he had fun being the bad guy. To keep things light for himself, he gave his henchman officers silly names like “Stinky feet.”
The production’s Anne Frank, Union Springs sophomore Emma DeGroff, said that she heavily researched the part. She and other cast members also made flash cards to pronounce the Yiddish terms correctly. DeGroff said she was glad she was able to “carry (Anne Frank’s) legacy” through her performance.
Bill Zimpfer, an English and journalism teacher at Southern Cayuga and a member of the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, said that even though he wouldn’t be able to go to the dress rehearsal, he was glad the attending students — many of whom were drama club members — were going. He said he teaches the play in class and encourages students interested in drama to go see shows. Zimpfer said the school district, as host site to one of the saplings, has a “strong focus” on Holocaust education.
Speaking after the talkback, Kadrian Rossbach said she was moved by the production.
“It felt like I was feeling with them, and (I) just felt very emotional connecting with the characters,” Rossbach said.
The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project was proud to welcome author Jack Mayer to Southern Cayuga. Dr. Mayer was the keynote speaker at our Annual Difference Makers’ Dinner which took place on May 5th, 2017. Difference Maker Awards were presented to Jesse Platt and Dick and Cathy Burns.
Jack Mayer is a pediatrician and a writer. Dr. Mayer was a National Cancer Institute Fellow at Columbia University researching the molecular biology of childhood cancer. He is the author of the award-winning non-fiction Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, which tells the story of a Polish Catholic social worker who organized a rescue network of fellow social workers to save 2,500 Jewish children from certain death in the Warsaw ghetto.
In addition to giving an inspirational speech at the Annual Difference Makers’ Dinner, Dr. Mayer lectured to Southern Cayuga School District students. Dr. Mayer also had the chance to tour the SCCS Anne Frank Tree Site. We were honored to host his visit to Southern Cayuga.
The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project was honored to welcome back Marion Blumenthal-Lazan and her husband, Nathaniel, to our sapling tree site on Friday, May 13, 2016. Marion and Nathaniel were in our area on a 9 day visit, in which they lectured at 10 separate school districts in Central New York. This is the 15th consecutive year that Marion and Nathaniel have lectured in our region, sharing their message of how to make this world a better place by promoting hope, respect, education, hard work, acceptance of others, courage, and the need for us all to be good to each other.
Marion’s visit was especially meaningful, as our tree site, created by Phil Donovan, contains references and images inspired by Marion. Eleven boulders surround the tree site, representing the number of Anne Frank trees given to the United States. There are also 4 small round boulders of the same type of stone placed amongst the other boulders. These four boulders reference Marion’s metaphor of the four perfect pebbles used in her book of the same name. Witnessing Marion walk around our tree site and search for the “four perfect pebbles” was a very meaningful and emotional experience for us all.
Marion was present at, and participated in, the planting ceremony of our sapling tree on June 12, 2013. She was also the keynote speaker at the “standing room only” ceremony held later that evening. You can view the video of the planting ceremony at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZLp87ziTJI.
Marion Blumenthal-Lazan travels internationally as a holocaust speaker. Over one million students and adults have listened to Marion’s lectures. You can visit her website at www.fourperfectpebbles.com.
Southern Cayuga High School 2384 State Route 34B, Aurora NY
Difference Maker Dinner &
Tours of Anne Frank Tree Site at 6 pm
Event Program at 7 pm
Dinner catered by Kendra’s Culinary Creations, $5 per person. Reservations preferred; please confirm attendance via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Congratulations to Our 2016 Difference Maker Award Recipients Paul & Jane Simkin and Sydney Hasenjager. Downtown Books and Coffee will be on site for book sales and signing by the Author.
Please join the Ithaca Area United Jewish Community for a very special event, Thursday May 5 2016 from 7-9 pm, at Temple Beth-El, 402 N. Tioga Street, Ithaca NY.
Helen Levinson will be the featured speaker at the Ithaca Holocaust commemoration event on the evening of May 5th at 7 PM, in the sanctuary of Temple Beth El.
Helen is an 85 year old Rochester resident, who grew up in a Jewish family in Poland. Her father was a brewmaster at a Jewish owned brewery in Lublin. When the Nazi occupation began during WW II, her family was allowed to live in the brewery, rather than sent to live in the ghetto. Helen will tell us about her time in a concentration camp and her escape from Poland.
The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project has, in the past month, made a significant impact on a local nutrition initiative, helped advance its site development and announced a year’s worth of events and programming.. Read more here.