In an age of rising anti-Semitism and distrust of “others,” hearing their first-hand stories is more important than ever.
Recently, Margie Treisman — a Westport Country Playhouse trustee and Anti-Defamation League national commissioner — was asked to help develop educational programming around an upcoming Playhouse production of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” about the Kindertransport children’s rescue.
She called Margie Lipshez-Shapiro. An ADL of Connecticut official and noted Holocaust educator, she knows almost every living survivor in the state who is willing and able to tell their tale.
Lipshez-Shapiro suggested Ivan Backer, a Kindertransport survivor who has written about his journey, and his life afterward. Backer will be at the Playhouse next Wednesday (March 29, 7 p.m.), as part of conversation called “From Hate to Hope.”
The event — sponsored by the Playhouse, ADL and TEAM Westport — is funded by the Anita Schorr “Step in and Be a Hero” Fund. Schorr — a longtime Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands with her story of horror and hope — died last year. The event is free, but seats must be reserved by phone (203-227-4177). For more information, click here.
“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” follows a week later with a limited run at the Playhouse (April 5-9). The true story of a young musical prodigy, it intertwines the themes of family, hope and survival with piano selections by Chopin, Beethoven, Bach — even a little Gershwin. Click here for more information.
Anita Schorr was one of Westport’s most remarkable citizens. The Holocaust survivor who survived slave labor, 2 concentration camps and the loss of her entire family, then educated countless area residents (especially students) about the dangers of hate and the power of positive thinking died last April at 85.
Anita Schorr lived through some of history’s most horrific times.
Her memory lives on. And on Sunday, November 6 (5:30 p.m., the Warehouse in Fairfield), the Anti-Defamation League honors that memory with a “Step in and Be a Hero” award.
Funds raised will support the organization’s education programs for teachers and students, and help ADL respond quickly to incidents of hatred.
She won’t be the only Westporter feted. Brett Aronow and Keith Stein will be honored too, with the Distinguished Community Leadership Award. It recognizes outstanding citizens who contribute to building strong communities open to people without regard to race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Keith Stein and Brett Aronow.
Brett served on the Board of Education, where she championed social, civic and ethical education; been an active member of TEAM Westport, the town’s multicultural committee; and is a former member of Positive Youth Development, the Youth Commission, SpEd Parents and the Fairfield County Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse.
Brett’s husband Keith served the Westport Democratic Town Committee in many roles, including chair; been a board member of the Friends of Parks and Recreation and the Westport Weston Health District, and was commissioner of Westport Little League.
Brett and Keith were both heavily involved in PTAs. They moved to Westport in 1993. With 3 children in college, they’ll spend the next months traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Northern California.
Very quietly, the ADL is one of our area’s true forces for good. How great that next Sunday, they recognize a few of Westport’s real good folks.
Anita Schorr — a Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands of area residents with her true story of horror and hope — died yesterday. With her trademark bravery, she had waged a battle with colon cancer. She was 85.
Anita began speaking out in 1993, following a visit to the newly opened United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Two decades of Westport students have listened, rapt, to this remarkable woman.
Anita Schorr lived through some of history’s most horrific times.
Liz Kaner first met Anita Schorr 17 years ago, on the tennis court. Her tattooed number was visible on her arm.
Recently, Liz drove Anita to an Anti-Defamation League program, to help middle school teachers incorporate the Holocaust into their curriculums. “Although it was the 3rd or 4th time I’d heard her story, I could barely breathe,” Liz says.
“She took us through her plight with countless harrowing twists and turns. She survived. The rest of her family perished.”
Liz adds: “She is the most extraordinary woman I ever met. She leaves a remarkable legacy. Her tale is one of triumph and perseverance, amid unimaginable tragedy and cruelty.”
Several years ago, Liz wrote an article about Anita for a joint Hadassah-UJA program. In it, Liz described the upheaval of Anita’s idyllic childhood at age 9 — along with the strength that allowed her to survive slave labor, ghetto life, 2 concentration camps, and the loss of her entire family.
Anita Schorr’s parents, Stella and Fritz, on their wedding day.
She was born Anita Pollak in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Her upper-middle class family was fully assimilated into Czech society. They were active in music and theater, and took ski vacations.
Her parents were Reform Jews who occasionally went to temple, sometimes made Shabbat dinner, and had both Jewish and Christian friends.
In March of 1939, when the Nazis seized the country, the family relocated to a smaller apartment, with her grandmother. In an effort to avoid a fate they feared, Anita’s grandmother and uncle committed suicide.
In 1941 the Pollaks were sent to the Terezin ghetto. Two years later they were transferred to Auschwitz. When the Red Cross visisted, the Pollaks were showcased as the “token family.”
Within a year, Anita’s father was sent to a German slave labor camp. Her mother and younger brother were sent to the gas chamber. Liz wrote that it took Anita “many years to comprehend the wrenching choice her mother made to remain by her young brother’s side to protect him, while urging her daughter to take a different path by claiming to be 18 years old.”
Anita Pollak, age 8, and her brother Michael, 3.
Anita was sent to a slave labor camp in Hamburg. After much terror and suffering, she was moved to the infamous Bergen Belsen. Half of the 60,000 prisoners died of starvation and disease. On April 15, 1945, the camp was liberated by the British.
Anita had never given up hope of seeing her father again. Miraculously, she received word that he was alive, and would meet her in Prague. Though suffering from dysentery, she traveled to meet him. For the rest of her life, the cherry blossoms she saw along the autobahn on that trip would remind her of freedom.
Tragically, her reunion did not occur. Her father was shot 2 days before the Allies arrived.
Students were rapt when Anita Schorr told her life story.
An orphan at 15, Anita planned for her future. She obtained a scholarship to a private school, and earned straight A’s.
Later she trained as one of the first 4 women to join the Haganah (Jewish paramilitary organization that became the core of the Israeli Defense Forces). In 1948 she was sent to the new nation of Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz by the Jordan border.
Anita called that experience “the 12 greatest years of my life. We carried the guilt of surviving. Building a country gave us a reason to live again. Israel built me back into a human being. The kibbutz was a surrogate family.”
A younger Anita Schorr
Anita married in Israel. He was a photographer. She worked in air-brush retouching. Eventually she and her husband moved to the US, a country that beckoned them as another “new world.”
Liz writes: “Her one major disappointment with the American way of life was that women had not attained the same high level of achievement as in Israel. Coming to the land of opportunity yet not feeling like an equal was eye-opening.”
Anita moved to Westport in 1985, and has inspired residents here ever since.
When Liz Kaner heard Anita speak recently to teachers at the ADL conference, she took notes. Among Anita’s most important points:
Every one of us has to do something. And yes, one person can make a difference. We need to be heroes again. We are better physically, better equipped with better weapons. Mentally we must feel that every incident is everyone’s responsibility.
Anita Schorr fought against intolerance. She made sure that the Holocaust has not been forgotten.
Now it is our job to never forget Anita Schorr.
(Anita Schorr’s funeral will be held this Sunday, April 10, 11 a.m. at Abraham L. Green & Son in Fairfield. Shiva details have not yet been announced.)
Anita Schorr persevered, and told her story with power. But she had a sense of humor too. After being presented with a small gift after one speaking engagement, she held it up as if it were an Oscar.
Two books about Anita Schorr, both by Marion Stahl.
You should see the press releases I get. If you want to break through the clutter, you gotta sell me on your event. Draw me in. Tell a compelling story.
And please, PLEASE, write intelligently.
Occasionally — and very fortunately — I receive a great press release. Once in a long while — okay, for the first time ever — I get one that is so good, I want to repeat it verbatim.
Holocaust survivor Anita Schorr is speaking at a Conservative Synagogue commemoration program this Sunday, May 1 (7 p.m.). The event is free, open to the community, and includes music and art work from children in the Terezin ghetto, plus participation by second and third-generation survivors.
Here is the press release, by Rose Horowitz:
“I thought my mother didn’t love me,” said 80-year-old Anita Schorr, a Holocaust survivor, as she sat in her light-filled contemporary Westport home.
Anita Schorr (Photo/Andrew Katz)
In 1943 the Nazis sent Schorr and her family from the Jewish ghetto of Terezin to Auschwitz. At the concentration camp, Nazi guards informed women between the ages of 18 and 50 they could sign up to do forced labor in Germany. Schorr was not even 14.
“My mother pushed me and told me, ‘you are 18 and you are strong,’” Schorr said. She asked her mother to come, but her mother said she could not leave her brother, who was only 9. Her mother pushed her into the line with the women, then turned and walked away.
“That’s when she saved my life,” said Schorr — though at that moment she thought her mother didn’t love her.
Schorr was the only survivor in her family.
At Auschwitz, the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele directed Schorr to line up with the women he considered not fit to work. Schorr, like the others, had been stripped naked for the inspection. When Dr. Mengele didn’t choose her to be a laborer, Schorr bolted from the line. That could easily have resulted in her being killed by the Nazi guards, she said.
“My body revolted. I thought I would burst and I ran for the latrines,” Schorr said. However, Schorr went in line again, putting her arm over her body to hide it since she was not physically developed. This time, Dr. Mengele selected her to do forced labor in Hamburg.
The rest of her family perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
When the women selected to work were preparing for medical exams Schorr started to cry, wanting to return to her mother. But a Nazi SS guard brought her into her office and offered her hot cocoa. The SS guard told Schorr not to return to her mother.
“You are going to Germany,” she said. The guard, like many of the prisoners, knew anyone not selected for forced labor would be exterminated at Auschwitz.
“She had a moment of humanity,” said Schorr, who grew up in a cultured, assimilated family in Czechoslovakia.
Schorr dug trenches in Hamburg for the German soldiers. “They had lorries next to the trenches. If you didn’t fill them up, you got beaten or punished,” she said.
“I was helping the people in front of me and behind me and I was obsessed with digging to stay strong and alive.”
When the Allied forces bombed homes in Hamburg, Schorr and the other women sometimes found food when they were sent to sift through the rubble.
“The biggest part of survival was to be able to satisfy the constant need for food,” she said.
In 1937, 7-year-old Anita Schorr played on a Maccabi sports team in Czechoslovakia. She is in the top row, 2nd from left.
After Hamburg Schorr was sent for 6 weeks to Bergen-Belsen, the same camp where Anne Frank was murdered. After it was liberated in 1945, Schorr lived in Czechoslovakia for 3 years. She joined the Haganah (underground Jewish defense force), and instructed others Jewish survivors in training for the army.
Thrilled when Israel became a nation in 1948, Schorr moved there. She lived on a border kibbutz, married and had a son.
She left in 1959 with her first husband and son for the US, and worked in print advertising for many years. Her son and 3 grandchildren live in Colorado.
Here in Westport she is an avid opera and classical music lover, swims nearly every day in her indoor pool, plays tennis, skis, and helps care for her husband Harold, who is now disabled.
For 30 years, Schorr did not speak about the Holocaust. But for the past 18 years she has spoken about her experience to thousands in area schools, churches and synagogues.
Her son, who is 54, has told her she is “woman of today and tomorrow,” and questioned why she talks about the past.
In the early years after the war, Schorr said she and other survivors questioned those who became famous telling their stories. She thought they were weak. Now she realizes she had to “wear armor” to protect herself, and was too fragile to tell her story.
“It took courage,” she said. “It took most of us 30 years to do that.”
Remembering the Holocaust is not enough, she says in her presentations. Young people cannot wait for someone else to do the right thing when they see someone doing something wrong.
“Step in. Be a hero,” she tells young people. “It’s the little things on the bus, in the locker room, on the internet, that could lead to tragedies like the Holocaust.”
She welcomes questions from the young people she meets when she speaks. During the interview, she shared a poem that a teenager wrote after hearing her talk at a church. Her own “armor is thinner” now, she said.
Pulling up her sleeve, she shows the number 71569, tattooed on her forearm in Auschwitz.
Sometimes a big event changes someone’s life. For 2 Bridgeport teenagers it was attending Sundance last year, meeting directors and actors, and returning home with confidence that they too can make films.
Sometimes a little event is life-changing. Another group of Bridgeport students needed a police officer and his car for their PSA on graffiti. One morning spent with a real cop opened their eyes to a whole different world.
None of those experiences — and many more — would be possible without the help of Sandy Lefkowitz, and a committed group of Westporters.
Sandy worked with Sarah Litty — an art teacher at Bridgeport charter school Bridge Academy — to develop a 35-week, seniors-only Art of Filmmaking course. An after-school club for all students soon followed.
Now armed with Macs, cameras and other equipment, the Bridgeport students leaped in. They studied scriptwriting, storyboard creation, film shooting and editing.
They learned well. The more they accomplished, the more opportunities they earned. After Sundance, Sandy took students to the Berkshire International Film Festival. Two were chosen for a prestigious Wesleyan program.
They walked through every door that opened. Perhaps not confidently at first — but by the time walked back out they felt independent, and aware of all they can do.
Their filmmaking has impacted all of Bridge Academy. Their peers see them as successful, while teachers in other subjects incorporate their talents into lesson plans.
An English class, for example, used film in a project on the civil rights movement. Before beginning, students learned how to conduct an interview.
Junior girls in another class made a film on nutrition. Sandy took them to an organic meat farm, and a hospital to meet a nutritionist. “They’re using resources outside their community, to bring something back to their community,” she notes.
Another resource is Westporter Anita Schorr. The Holocaust survivor met Bridge students at a Westport Country Playhouse production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” They invited her to their school, and filmed her presentation. Now they’re creating a documentary on her experiences, with hopes of distributing it to classrooms nationwide.
The Academy’s film program has been a true bridge — between students and the rest of the school and city, and between Bridgeport and Westport. Two Bridge students now sit on the WYFF board. Others are collaborating with WYFF (and Westport writer/director Doug Tirola) on a promotional film about the arts.
“They see themselves as colleagues,” Sandy says proudly.
And — one day — they may be back at Sundance, debuting a film to an international audience.
(The Art of Filmmaking and Westport Youth Film Festival are programs of the Westport Arts Center, and receive funding from WAC’s fundraising efforts.)
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