Everyone’s past holds stories that help to shape identities. These stories can serve as lenses through which we can gain understanding of historical events on a personal level. For teacher Jackie Brodo, her family’s story winds through Paris in the 1930s, fleeing rising anti-Semitism in France, and eventually finding a haven in Philadelphia. It was a long road, and not an easy one. To help enrich our 8th grade students’ study of identity, and to add empathetic richness to Jesse North’s class’s reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night, Mrs. Brodo shared the story of her family’s narrow escape from the Holocaust.
This sharing of her family’s story was brought about by an observation Miss North had made about how her students had been approaching Night. In years’ past, students tended to approach the troubling narrative of Night from an impersonal vantage point; they hadn't fully processed that this was a memoir of actual events and not a work of fiction. In seeking to further students' knowledge and empathic response to the text, Miss North found, in her colleague Jackie Brodo, a willing resource for setting the stage for the work of reading and seeing other histories and perspectives through a compassionate lens. And so the collaboration between Miss North and Mrs. Brodo began.
Mrs. Brodo’s father is the youngest of three brothers, and had been living with his parents in Paris. Mrs. Brodo's grandparents and their sons fled Paris in 1935 because of rising anti-Semitism in France, relocating many times until they arrived in Italy in 1944, hoping to keep ahead of the Nazis and leave Europe. Her grandfather died in Italy before they were able to secure passage. Then, in 1944, President Roosevelt offered Jewish war refugees passage to the United States. Mrs. Brodo’s grandmother, father (who was eleven at the time), and uncles were among the nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees who boarded a military ship and crossed the ocean to America in twelve days, through the dangerous waters of naval war.
When they reached the United States, Mrs. Brodo’s family and the other refugees were placed in a refugee camp in Oswego, New York—the only US refugee camp of the war. (These articles provide more information about this refugee camp: “The Secret History of America’s Only WWII Refugee Camp” [New York Times] and “Jews fleeing the Holocaust weren’t welcome in the U.S. Then FDR finally offered a refuge to some.” [Washington Post].)
At the refugee camp, Mrs. Brodo’s family learned to speak English and they learned about American culture. After two years, the camp helped them with settlement, and asked the refugees where they’d like to go in the United States. Jackie’s grandmother chose Philadelphia, because she’d learned it was called the “City of Brotherly Love” and she wanted her three boys to always be reminded of their family bond.
Moved by the presentation, every student in the class had questions for Mrs. Brodo.
Mrs. Brodo reflects, “An essential part of learning is being able to make connections. By sharing my father's story, I hope students will understand a difficult, painful part of history on a more personal, relatable level. This is the second year that I've presented to Ms. North's class as part of building background to read Night by Elie Wiesel. I am again amazed at the students' thoughtfulness and attention to both the historical and personal details of my dad's story.”
Next month, on March 12, Benchmark School will host Molly Gross, a Holocaust survivor from Bedzin, Poland who, along with her older sister, was separated at 14 from her parents and taken to a German concentration labor camp.