Forging Friendships, Preserving Memory

The Sunshine Circle Brings Teenagers and Holocaust Survivors Together

by Chaviva Galatz – Palm Desert, CA

Holocaust survivors are a fast dwindling population. But buried with many a survivor who dies is a story of untold suffering and loss, and also, lessons of an extraordinary will for life.

Survivors have good reason to be concerned about what will happen with their stories after none are left to give first-hand testimony. Even with them still here to speak out, obnoxious voices deny the Holocaust, and a young generation grows further removed and ignorant of the darkest chapter of Jewish history.

Shaindy Friedman, a young Chabad representative with a robust enthusiasm for history, has decided to bridge the generational and cultural divide that separates teenagers and Holocaust survivors, and do many great mitzvahs along the way for both.

Born and raised in Palm Springs, Friedman grew up surrounded by a significant number of Holocaust survivors – some local, some visiting, and all praying at her father’s synagogue.

“Year after year we’d hear about which survivors would not be returning for their annual winter visits,” she said, “the survivors we’d lost.”

When she returned as a newlywed to California with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Friedman, she and her husband founded The Sunshine Circle, pairing Jewish teenagers with local Holocaust survivors.

“Many survivors have expressed concern that as time passes, interest wanes,” she said. “It bolsters them to become an active part in transferring vital knowledge and experience to students and then watch as they move forward with confidence and enthusiasm.”

Operating for a little more than a year in Palm Desert, The Sunshine Circle counts 52 teen participants, a majority of whom joined without prompting.

The Sunshine Circle gave teenager Howie Berkowitz “the chance to be engaged in living history, to have the opportunity to connect personally with the remaining survivors of a waning generation.”

Teen participants visit with survivors in their homes, attend weekly or bimonthly meetings and general group sessions where they are addressed by a survivor or speaker, and will be involved in community-wide projects that advance the message of The Sunshine Circle, including an upcoming art exhibit featuring photographs of local survivors.

The program imbues teens with strong sense of their history and identity, and helps build leadership skills as they bring joy and solace to the lives of local Holocaust survivors.

One of those survivors, Frances Nassau, was imprisoned in the Terezin camp before being sent with her family to Auschwitz and later to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated. She lost her entire family in the Holocaust.

“Frances’s story must live on after her, and I am proud to be the one to carry it to the next generation,” teen participant Ally Levine said.

Ally plans to meet with Frances regularly and is working to develop “a personal relationship with her that goes above and beyond the past. The Holocaust is more than just the facts taught in history books; it is the stories and feelings of survivors. Each year there are fewer survivors. I can now share the truths of the Holocaust with the world even after the last survivor is gone.”

Encountering teenagers who take a real interest in their story allows them to share painful memories buried deep within their souls, sometimes for the first time since emerging from those nightmare years.

“These are memories I have never shared before,” Mauthausen survivor Nathan Hoffman said. “No one has ever asked me about them.”

The organization has earned the admiration of many in the Jewish community, most notably Herman Wouk, a longtime congregant of Chabad of Palm Springs, and a friend and mentor of Friedman.

“[The] Sunshine Circle is a fresh, sensible, admirable project,” said the Pulitzer Prize author. “Bringing teenagers together with survivors passes on the torch of Jewish historical memory hand to hand, from those who know most to those who need it.”

For teen Ethan Mezrahi, the “Sunshine Circle transforms our history into a personal reality by being able to connect with this last generation of survivors.”

Matthew Levine, another teenager, agrees. “It isn’t a club, it’s an experience, learning from a lost generation to find out more about ourselves.”

courtesy Chabad Lubavitch News