SOUTHERN PINES - Flood warnings stretched across the diocese April 24, the day the Jewish faithful observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Rain pelted the windows and roof of St. John Paul II Catholic School’s Tru-Legacy Activity Center and created a melancholy back beat to traditional Jewish melodies played by violin soloist and teacher, Kaitlyn Johnson.
This is the second year that 8th grade students have hosted a commemorative name reading. The names, provided by the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, are victims of the Holocaust whose identities, freedoms and lives were stripped from them through the atrocities of Nazi rule.
The tradition started when teachers Barbara Lamblin, Lori D’Argenio and Diane Buckley attended the Bearing Witness Program, a professional development opportunity which provides Catholic school educators with training and resources to teach their students about the historical relationship between Jewish and Catholic communities.
Inspired by their teachers, 8th grade students take charge of the event, leading every aspect from creating a press release to shepherding participants through the reading process.
“These people [the victims], the Nazis literally took their name away from them and ripped their dignity from them. It’s really important to give that back,” student organizer Monica Etowski said.
Holocaust survivor and Pinehurst native Ralph Jacobson was the guest speaker. He was 10 years old when his father, Dr. Ernst Jacobson, was murdered by Nazi officers. An original death report - which Mr. Jacobson and his family have since proven to be untrue - stated that Dr. Jacobson took his own life.
“In those days, many Jewish deaths were made to look like car accidents and suicides,” Mr. Jacobson said of the early years of Hitler’s rule.
Mr. Jacobson, who has spoken often of his journey, wanted to focus on a story of friendship and hope this year. He told students about his childhood best friend Wolfgang Kreft, a Christian. They played nearly every day until Hitler came into power, when they were told their friendship could not continue for their parents’ sake.
“In our town of Osnabrück, which was an extreme Nazi town, it was too dangerous [to be friends]. It would be reported, and there would be dire circumstances, especially for [Wolfgang’s father] Dr. Kreft,” Mr. Jacobson said.
Not long after the death of Dr. Jacobson, on Kristallnacht, the night that many Jewish synagogues and businesses were destroyed, four Nazi officers came to the Jacobsons’ home. They told Mrs. Jacobson that they must search the house for men. Upon finding the young Mr. Jacobson they asked, “How old is he?”
“He is 10 years old,” his mother said.
“That is too young,” the soldiers are said to have replied. The family didn’t know what that meant at the time, but they soon learned that if young Mr. Jacobson had been just a few years older - about the same age as many of the Saint John Paul II students listening to the story - he would have been taken to a concentration camp that night.
Dr. Kreft, who risked being reported, helped the Jacobson family file paperwork and get approved to come to the United States. They left Germany on Mr. Jacobson’s 11th birthday.
“It was a very nice birthday present,” he told the middle schoolers.
Years later, he and his mother returned to their town and were welcomed by Dr. Kreft, who had been named mayor by British forces. Mr. Jacobson and his childhood friend, Mr. Kreft, embraced and have been friends ever since.
As part of his story, Mr. Jacobson shared pictures with the middle schoolers. There were pictures of the synagogue he grew up in, both before and after it was destroyed on Kristallnacht, pictures of his father and pictures of his boyhood friends lining up together before a soccer game.
An audible gasp from the audience arose when he pointed to the boy in the middle of the line of soccer friends and said, “If you have read Anne Frank’s diary, that boy in the middle is Peter, the boyfriend that she mentions. As you know, both he and Anne died in concentration camps.”
Following Mr. Jacobson’s talk, students and community members lined up to light a candle and read 18 names. The number 18 is significant in Jewish numerology, it means, “life.”
For student Mikaila Waldo, it’s important for her generation to hear these accounts first hand while they still can.
“The people who survived these events [of the 1930s and ‘40s] are dying, and stories can only go so far without being shaped in another way,” she said. “It is especially important that we remember and be aware so that this never happens again.”
Mrs. D’Argenio noted with pride that even students who are normally shy or hesitant to read out loud voluntarily approached the podium. “They really get it,” she said. “They understand how important this is.”