JUNE 7, 2018, DANVERS – It’s usually Mary Kiley, a religion teacher at St. John’s Prep, who assigns the homework, but not when Sonia Weitz was involved. Kiley and Weitz were having their first meeting as Holocaust Legacy Partners, a program started by Weitz that pairs Holocaust survivors with people who promise to share their story with the world after they die. Weitz handed Kiley a copy of her 1993 memoir “I Promised I Would Tell.”
“She gave me a copy of the book and said, ‘Read it, and read it again, and after you’ve read it well, you can come up with questions that show that you’ve read the book,’” recalled Kiley, laughing fondly at an encounter with someone she said became like a second mother to her.
Kiley did her homework, and a lasting friendship was born. Kiley and Weitz met many times to talk about Weitz’s experience as a young child in Nazi concentration camps. Usually after about 40 minutes, Sonia would begin to look bored. “I saw her face and said, ‘Are we done here?’” remembered Kiley. “She said, ‘Yes. Tell me about your love life and your children.’ She was very interested in me as a person.”
Though Weitz died in 2010 in her Peabody home, Kiley can remember Sonia’s irreverent, indelible spirit every time she walks by two cherry trees planted in the courtyard of St. John’s Prep. The trees were planted in 2012: one for Sonia, and one for her sister Blanca, the only member of her family who survived the camps with her.
In planting the trees, St. John’s Prep honored Weitz’s 19 years of engagement with the school. Her son Don graduated in 1970, which was around the time that Sonia began speaking about her experiences. Like many survivors, she didn’t want to talk about her experiences until a few decades after the war.
“When [Sonia] came here, I remember her saying that half of the survivors will talk about it, and half won’t,” Kiley said. “Then [Holocaust] deniers started popping up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and that’s what got her to speak. She was so furious.”
For 19 years, Weitz spoke to the freshman class at St. John’s Prep. She showed a 25-minute video, and then took questions. Kiley estimated that Weitz spoke to roughly 6,000 students over the years. Every year, a graduating senior is honored with the Sonia Weitz Award for contributions to peace and social justice.
This past summer, St. John’s Prep once again honored Weitz’s memory. For many years, German teacher Chris Lynch has been taking students on a trip around Germany and Austria that included a visit to Dachau. For a long time, Kiley wanted to go to Mauthausen, the concentration camp in Austria where Sonia and Blanca were liberated in May 1945.
After much planning, Kiley, Lynch, two other teachers, and 24 Prep students met the Mauthausen Memorial staff on June 23, 2017. Kiley donated a signed book of Weitz’s poetry to the camp library. In a moving tribute, the students placed a wreath and stones on the Jewish Victims’ Memorial, a giant menorah overlooking a field. During the ceremony, Kiley read a poem written by Weitz about the only time she danced with her father, which was at the Plaszow concentration camp, one of the many camps where she was interned.
Weitz found a blanket, and snuck over to her father’s barracks on the other side of a barbed wire fence to give it to him so that he could stay warm in the winter. While she was there, she saw a boy around her age playing a harmonica, an offense punishable by death. Jakub said to his daughter that they had never danced before, and so they did. Introducing her poem, Weitz wrote of the memory: “It is a precious image: a bizarre and beautiful gift.”
I danced with you that one time only
You knew that they would take you soon
So when your bunkmate played a tune
You whispered, “Little one, let us dance. We may not have another chance.”
To grasp this moment, sense the mood
Arms around me never felt so good
The ugly barracks disappeared
There was no hunger and no fear
What a sight
Just you and I
My lovely father, once big and strong
And me a child condemned to die
I thought how long before the song must end
There are no tools to measure love
And only fools would fail
To scale your victory
Their father was killed by a guard just three days before Sonia and Blanca were liberated by US troops.
For more information about the Holocaust Legacy Partners program, call the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University at 978-542-2314, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.