DUXBURY – Senior Molly Taberner was among a group of 18 Duxbury High students who completed the Salem-based Lappin Foundation’s first ever Holocaust Symposium for Teens over the summer, which included a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
During a ceremony at the completion of the symposium at Duxbury High on Aug. 16, Taberner read her letter to Blimcia Lische of Kolbuszowa, Poland, who along with her family was gassed at the Belzec killing center on July 7, 1942.
Blimcia was just 3½.
“Reading your story, Blimcia, and reading other people’s stories who suffered with you has made it so you’re not just one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. You are a real person who lived during the Holocaust, and you matter and your story needs to be shared,” Taberner said.
Piles of shoes, a rail car in which hundreds of Jews were crammed, and desecrated Torah scrolls on display at the Holocaust museum opened the eyes of these 18 Duxbury students, none of whom are Jewish, to the Nazi atrocities and the dangers of unchecked antisemitism.
What also opened their eyes were stories of victims, like Blimcia, whose identification cards the students were given at the start of their tour.
The emotional ceremony in the Duxbury Performing Arts Center took place more than five months after the high school’s football team made national and international news after it was learned an offensive lineman called out “Auschwitz” for a play during a March 12 game against Plymouth North, according to a summary of an investigation report.
The report found that “Jewish-related words” like “Rabbi” and “Dreidel” had crept into word-association play calls at practice as far back as the 2010 to 2012 football seasons.
The report found the actions of the coaching staff in condoning the use of these offensive terms were inconsistent with the school district’s policies. The school’s winning head football coach, Dave Maimaron, was fired from his coaching job on March 24.
The report also found the school district took prompt action, including the football team taking part in a mandatory Holocaust presentation during which they met a third-generation survivor. The district also planned a full external review of the athletic program and the establishment of an Athletic Advisory Committee to review and make recommendations to the athletic program. This spring, coaches were given Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training prior to the season, and such training is being given to staff for the upcoming school year. A core group of coaches and student athletes will be trained by Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
In another attempt to learn from what happened, the 18 Duxbury High students – a number that coincides with chai, the Hebrew word for life – completed the Holocaust Symposium for Teens sponsored by the Lappin Foundation and the Duxbury Student Union, an independent nonprofit that serves young people in Duxbury through after-school programs and special events.
The six-week symposium was endorsed by Salem State University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Holocaust Legacy Foundation. This was the inaugural symposium for Lappin.
While not all students and families could attend the ceremony due to other summer commitments, 10 students and their families did.
They heard from Joshua Kraft, president of Kraft Family Philanthropies and son of businessman and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who presented them with certificates of completion.
Kraft, who also oversees the Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism as part of the Kraft Family Philanthropies, told the students that the horrors committed against the Jews down through history “sort of have been lost on a lot of people, and we see it unfortunately in today’s world, beyond Duxbury. Way beyond Duxbury.
“But your resilience,” Kraft said, “your courage, 18 of you, none Jewish, to stand up, go through this program in the summer, when you could be doing a lot of other things, really moves me and I know it will move my family.” Kraft noted he lost relatives in the Holocaust and had a relative that survived.
“They are not here,” Kraft said, “but you have connected with all of them and their spirits.”
The symposium included in-person and virtual learning sessions, virtual meetings with Holocaust survivors and the reading of “The Librarian of Auschwitz,” by Antonio Iturbe, about the life of survivor Dita Kraus.
The students heard from two Holocaust survivors, Dr. Hans Fisher of Newton, who was a passenger on the ill-fated M.S. St. Louis, an ocean liner with 937 passengers aboard, many of them Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, that was turned away by Cuba, the United States and Canada; and Auschwitz survivor David Schaecter of Miami, Florida. They had planned to meet with Dita Kraus via Zoom from Israel, but she had been hospitalized, underscoring the fragility of Holocaust survivors who are now in their 90s.
It was pointed out that these students, who represent just 2 percent of Duxbury High’s student body, will now be able to carry forward the stories they heard from Holocaust survivors to their peers to help fight antisemitism.
“I definitely think we are going on the right track,” said sophomore Brent Watts after the ceremony. “There’s definitely still much more road to travel, but we are definitely going in the right direction.”
“It’s something we always learn about in school but actually getting to go there and see the museum was really a life-changing experience for me,” said senior Jon “Delby” Lemieux, 17. When asked if there was something in the museum that made an impression on him, he said, “there would be too may to count.”
“You feel the gravity of what happened,” Lemieux said.
Incoming freshman Eva McDermott, 14, said the visit to the museum was one of the saddest things she has ever seen.
“They had this exhibit there that had hair of the people that died and it said in the exhibit that the hair was used for like mattresses and pillows and things like that, and I just couldn’t imagine how people could buy them or like people not knowing what was in them and people could just sleep on that and spend their money on that,” McDermott said.
Her twin brother, Gavin, also found it hard to go through the exhibits, but the quotation, “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me,” posted at the end of the exhibits, a saying by Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller, struck the young man. Niemöller was imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime after initially supporting it.
The idea for the symposium came about last spring when Deborah Coltin, Lappin Foundation’s executive director and a Peabody resident, invited Sue Bradford, executive director of the Duxbury Student Union, to a Zoom meeting with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, a Jewish member of the state Legislature, to garner support for a genocide education bill.
Amid the fallout from the football team’s callousness, Coltin continued to reach out to Bradford to offer help.
“It felt overwhelming at times,” Bradford said. “Duxbury was on the national news, and our community was really struggling. We were looking for greater understanding, and education, to heal and grow, and Duxbury students were making their voices heard. They knew there was work to be done and they were willing to do it.”
“We agreed upfront that it would not be about making amends or penance, but rather an opportunity to engage in an immersive learning experience,” Bradford said.
They were able to attract a cross-section of Duxbury students.
“The only criteria that connected them was a willingness to stand up against hate and be leaders amongst their peers,” Bradford said.
“What I learned about these students over the past six weeks is they did not take the symposium for the sole benefit of themselves,” Coltin said. “They did it for Duxbury.”
Middleton’s Jody Kipnis, co-founder and president of the Holocaust Legacy Foundation, and Todd Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, joined the group in Washington at the Holocaust museum.
“My thoughts are that I think it’s wonderful, they are not Jewish and they are having this experience and they are going to become teachers to their community,” Kipnis said. “It’s not just going to end here.”
Ruderman said they “heard from one of the students that they are embarrassed to say that they are from Duxbury because of what happened with the football team, which they had absolutely nothing to do with.”
The symposium, he said, has given the students power and knowledge so they can stand up for their town and themselves.