Parents a Necessary Part of This Holocaust Education Journey

A selection of binders with letters from people around the world who wrote in to the students, housed in the school’s Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room. | Marissa Stern

Part two of the Paper Clips story

WHITWELL, TENN. — When you’re in eighth grade, probably the last people you want to hang out with are your parents.

But for the eighth graders on a trip to Whitwell, Tenn., as part of Philly Friends of Paper Clips, bringing a parent was intentional since the beginning six years ago.

“This is the age when the last thing a kid wants is for your parent to come on a field trip with you,” Norman Einhorn, director of member engagement at Har Zion Temple, acknowledged, “and that’s exactly what I wanted — to make everyone uncomfortable, because I knew that this would be something they would never forget.”

For Ramona Sitko, the parental aspect hit a little closer to home.

Her father, Sam Sitko, was featured in the Paper Clips film when a group of Holocaust survivors from Long Island traveled to Whitwell to share their stories.

When he was 16 years old, he was sent to Auschwitz with his mother, sister and two brothers. His father died in a ghetto. His mother and 5-year-old brother, Avraham, were separated from the rest and ultimately sent to the gas chambers. When Sam Sitko went to a guard to ask for his mother and brother, the guard pointed to a smokestack. At the time, he didn’t understand what that meant.

He later was liberated.

“Just being there and knowing that my dad was there, it was sort of like a reconnecting,” she said. “When he came back, he talked about how wonderful the community was and I don’t think you can really fully grasp it unless you’re there.”

Sam Sitko, who has since passed away, visited Whitwell twice, before and after the rail car dedication. He talked more about his story after the trip, which he hadn’t when Ramona Sitko was growing up.

“He went there with a lot of trepidation the first time,” Ramona Sitko recalled. “All he knew is he was going to a community that had never seen Jews, they don’t have any Jews and they want to meet Holocaust survivors. … He was a little anxious going there, that uncertainty of what do you expect after you’ve been through so much. But that’s what started it.”

The movie shows footage of him sharing his story and meeting a student named Cassie Crabtree. The two remained close until Sam Sitko’s death. On the trip, Crabtree and Ramona Sitko met each other for the first time.

Since being back, Ramona Sitko and her 15-year-old son, Cooper, who accompanied her, have had time to reflect on their experience.

“The Whitwell community and the kids have grown so incredibly because of this project,” she said, “and what a better way to learn and to actually sort of feel vindicated, like against Hitler. Like, you know what? We survived and we’re strong and because of all that you did, here’s a whole community that’s growing — the total opposite and antithesis of what he wanted. … This is evidence that these kids are going to go on and have such better understanding and tolerance and they will be speaking out against not just anti-Semitism, but all hatred.”

Sherry Pearlstein went on the trip two years ago with her son. This year, she was accompanied by daughter Tessa.

“It’s just so moving to know that there’s so much caring in the world and people care about a people that they had no notion of before,” Pearlstein said. “They didn’t know any Jewish people, they didn’t have any connection and they created this connection and they wanted to create the connection — and they not only created the connection, but it’s become a huge part of their world.”

Butterfly sculptures around the Children’s Holocaust Memorial. | Marissa Stern

Tessa Pearlstein, an eighth-grader at the Baldwin School, reflected on the symbolism within the Children’s Holocaust Memorial Research Room at Whitwell Middle School, surrounded by bookshelves stocked with binders of the more than 30,000 letters students have received and artifacts like a lunchbox with 15,000 paper  butterflies to represent the children murdered in the Terezin ghetto.

“The letters are really interesting because it just brings the project to a much more real perspective,” she said,

noting many are from Holocaust survivors who sent in their own paper clips. “Each one has their own story and their family has their own story and everything has a story, even if it’s something small like a paper clip.”

She was most impacted by the people involved in the project.

“They never met a Jewish person before they started the project,” she noted, “and now just 10, 20 years later they have people from all over the world, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, all coming to the same place to look at one kind of culture and what happened.”

Haverford School student James Aschkenasy was accompanied by his mom, Jill, who participated in the trip twice before with her older children.

For James Aschkenasy, the trip also had a personal element as he celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of best friend Rani Bleznak.

“They were celebrating Judaism in front of the rail car where there was once so much hatred,” he said. “I thought that was just really cool symbolism.”

They also both enjoyed the church service at the Whitwell Church of God, which to Jill Aschkenasy illustrated the importance of understanding.

“It was interesting for a group of kids who spend a decent amount of time learning about Judaism and their own heritage to then be in a church service, which was a very different format from anything they have known,” she said. “Much more Evangelical, much more personal, and I think that having the trip be more than about just the Holocaust but also about two communities and understanding each other’s community, which then brings more tolerance, I thought was a really nice piece.”

James Aschkenasy has stayed in touch with Whitwell students via social media and likely will see them again when some come to Philadelphia in October.

As the group prepared to leave, David Smith — the then-assistant principal of Whitwell Middle School who helped start the project — reflected on the years he’s had to build a relationship with the Philly community.

“When the project began, I was 32 years old and I don’t know that I had ever met a Jewish person,” he said. “Now I’ve probably been to more Shabbat dinners and Bar or Bat Mitzvahs than probably half the Jewish people in the United States. It’s taught me to learn to love a group of people that I didn’t even know existed, which I’m thankful for.”

As the project continues, he hopes the communities build on their similarities.

“It’s meant a lot because we’re coming from two completely different cultures and not only religion-wise but actually the way our communities are made up and where we come from as adults and maybe our way of thinking,” he said. “But it means a lot that when we come together that we can see that we’re the same, that the differences are not that many but there’s a lot that’s very similar.”

Norman Einhorn is already looking ahead to the October visit and more Whitwell trips to come.

“I hope for the students the same thing I hoped for that Nov. 20, 2011: that it’s not a flash in the pan and that it’s not one day or one program,” he said. “I wish for them the ability to take something from this, hear the message, let the experience change them and make something of it.”

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