Meeting a Holocaust Survivor

As eighth graders absorbed the riveting story of Shifra, a little girl who narrowly escaped certain death at the hands of the Nazis, in 1942, through the heroic actions of her nanny, Lena, their eyes flicked between the woman on stage telling the story and the older woman in the front row. It was Shifra Leviatin, now named Ellen Kaidanow!

Shifra’s dramatic story was presented at an assembly at John Jay Middle School, at which eighth graders met two Holocaust survivors—Ellen Kaidanow and her husband Jerry, now grandparents and residents of New Rochelle, New York. The personal story of survival brought history, empathy and the power of hope to life. 

Their daughter-in-law, also named Ellen Kaidanow, told Shifra’s story in four vivid segments, each framed by a different name her mother-in-law used as she miraculously evaded the Nazis, moved to Russia, lived in a Displaced Persons Camp in Poland and immigrated to the United States at age 12: Shifra, Marusia, Shura, Ellen.

“It was a privilege for our students to meet two Holocaust survivors,” said Principal Jeff Swiatowicz, who arranged for the program with help from Rabbi Shoshana Leis of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers. “I hope they will always remember this day.”

Students were well prepared to understand the political landscape of Shifra’s story. They had been studying the roots of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party's use of scapegoating, racism and propaganda. In addition, said teacher Paul Ciancio, students watched an interview with Elie Weisel, viewed video of Auschwitz and read primary accounts of Kristallnacht and other survivors' stories.

Kaidanow told the students that she shares Shira’s story to be a witness for her mother-in-law’s experiences in the Holocaust. “Now you, too, are witnesses,” she told the eighth graders. “Remember Lena. Be an upstander. Stand up for others when you see bullying of any kind. And never lose hope.”

Students had an opportunity to process the assembly with their teachers afterwards.

"I felt so grateful to hear them in person,” said one student. “I found it hard to process just how young they were when their families were killed."

"I was moved by the efforts made by people who put their life in danger to try to help," said another. "It made realize how fortunate I am.