After surviving unimaginable horrors in concentration camps, Stephan Ross went on to become the driving force behind creating the New England Holocaust Memorial while educating future generations about the importance of remembering the deaths of six million Jews during World War II.
Because of the Holocaust, Ross never became a bar mitzvah. He did, however, become a father, and then a grandfather. His grandson, Joe Fasullo of Dedham, hoped that when it was time, his grandfather could join him for a double bar mitzvah and finally realize a milestone he never had while locked in the death camps as a young teenager. Sadly, Stephan Ross died in February, and Fasullo was not able to have his grandfather with him for his bar mitzvah on Nov. 14.
“It was very hard,” Fasullo said of the loss. “We were very close. He was almost like more than a grandfather … He was my role model, my idol, ‘Papa’ to everyone.”
At his bar mitzvah, Fasullo, who attends Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, found a way to honor his grandfather with a moving tribute, and by holding a fundraiser for the New England Friends of March of the Living. The program is a unique way of preserving the memory of the Holocaust for the next generation while educating them about the evils of prejudice.
Participants in their teens visit concentration camp sites in Poland over one week and then go to Israel for another week. The Poland portion of the trip takes place during Yom HaShoah, with attendees making a 3-kilometer march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The Israel part coincides with the nation’s Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, and its Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut. The program annually includes about 10,000 youngsters from 52 countries.
“The message of March of the Living is that we have to be upstanders,” said Irv Kempner, chairman of New England Friends of March of the Living. Noting that the program is held during Purim, he said that the holiday is “an interesting story of a Holocaust prevented and averted by two Jews,” Mordechai and Esther, who “risked their lives for the welfare of everything.”
Kempner said that he urges March of the Living participants to think of themselves as leaders like Mordechai and Esther: “Stand up when you see injustice.”
When Kempner attended Ross’s funeral, he said he was inspired to create an Educator of the Year Award in Ross’s name to recognize excellence in Holocaust education. It led to further talks between Kempner and the Ross and Fasullo families. From these connections, Fasullo decided he wanted to help New England Friends of March of the Living as his bar mitzvah project.
“The idea just came about: What if Joe raised money to send somebody to the program?” said his mother, Julie Ross. “It would be a great way to honor his grandfather.
“My dad had a mission to tell as many people what he went through during the Holocaust and educate the world what went across during that time,” Ross said. “New England Friends of March of the Living is such a wonderful program. They go to the camps, to Israel. The whole point is to teach them about hatred, what hatred can do, what education can do.”
Working with a designer, Fasullo and his mother created T-shirts they are selling to benefit the organization. Funds will go toward a scholarship to assist at least one youngster from New England making the trip. Although March of the Living had to be held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers hope some version of the trip will be held next year or the year after, Kempner said.
The T-shirt features the words “The message is,” followed by a heart symbol to represent love, a peace sign, and a handshake between two people of different backgrounds to represent acceptance and awareness. On the back, it asks, “Did you get the message?”
As his mother reflected, Fasullo’s T-shirt message is very similar to his grandfather’s core beliefs.
“My dad’s mission was to show the world about the Holocaust, tolerance and intolerance, peace and love,” she said. “We can all be better to one another.”
In addition to working on this project, Fasullo practiced reading his Haftorah portion with Rabbi Alan Turetz of Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill. The day of the bar mitzvah reflected the impact of COVID-19 as it was a virtual ceremony, with family and friends watching over Zoom.
“It felt very good to have the bar mitzvah, to be able to do it in this crazy COVID world,” Fasullo said. “I thought about my grandpa.”
“It’s been really hard,” Julie Ross said. “We thought he was going to live forever … He was such a survivor. He went through everything that happened in his life, he went right through. He was so strong. We couldn’t imagine not having him. We miss him. He was very much a huge force in our family. It’s a big loss, a huge void.
“We thought this would be a way to remember his life, do something concerning something he would want. He would want to send someone, who could not maybe have the opportunity, to go on the trip for the March of the Living.”
Anyone wishing to purchase a T-shirt to benefit New England March of the Living can email email@example.com.