Relative of Holocaust Survivor Encourages Being an Upstander

As a part of the annual Spiritual Life’s Open House for All Peoples Week, a relative of a holocaust survivor was invited to campus: Ms. Ellen Kaidanow shared the story of her mother-in-law, who is also named Ellen Kaidanow, at school meeting on Tuesday, January 23.

This event was organized by Sarah Gurevitch ’19, Rabbi Barbara Paris, and The Rev. Ally Brundige. Rabbi Paris was approached by Gurevitch with the idea of bringing a speaker of this sort to campus. She commented, “With the rise of anti-semitism and hate crimes coupled with the fact that most survivors of the Holocaust are in their 80s and 90s, she felt it was important to hear their stories before they are all gone.” Rabbi Paris then called the organization that Ms. Kaidanow is part of: Generations Forward, a group of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors that was organized by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center. Although the Holocaust survivor herself was in Florida at the time, Rabbi Paris mentioned that her daughter-in-law was eager to come to Choate.

Those that organized the event were hopeful that it would have an impact on the community. “In today’s climate, there’s a rise in anti-semitism all over the world,” Rev. Brundige said. “It’s important, I believe, as committed citizens and as a community that we stare intolerance in its face and name it and work to oppose it… In order to do that, we need to know our stories, both past and present.”

Rev. Brundige added that by hearing these stories, we can recognize both those that caused these horrific events and those that were willing to help. Gurevitch agreed. “I wanted to share a part of myself with the school and help educate those about the Holocaust so no event like the Holocaust will ever happen again,” she said. “With such intolerance in the world, I really felt Ellen’s speech would be very relevant and influential.”

Ms. Kaidanow began her mother-in-law’s story with a description of her childhood. Ms. Kaidanow was five years old when the Holocaust began, and her short childhood before World War II was peaceful and healthy. Given the name Shifra at birth, she lived in Dubno, Ukraine, with her two parents, an older sister, and a younger sister. Her parents operated a candy store in a community of both Christians and Jews. However, amid increasing threats to the family’s safety, her aunt and uncle learned that Nazis were en route to Dubno and advised Ms. Kaidanow’s family to flee. Ms. Kaidanow’s parents refused to leave, as their business was growing.

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Ms. Ellen Kaidanow (left) with her mother-in-law, also named Ellen Kaidanow, a Holocaust survivor.

Legislation eventually confined all Jews to a ghetto. At first, Ms. Kaidanow was eager to move. However, she soon realized that the Jewish ghetto was nothing to be excited about. Each morning, her father and uncle were compelled to brutal labor. In addition, Ms. Kaidanow’s family consistently hid in a bunker to avoid Nazi harassment.

Although Ms. Kaidanow endured harsh conditions in the ghetto, the family’s Christian nanny found a way to bring them food. But with time, the Nazis declared a final action to destroy the entire ghetto. At this time, Lenna offered to save Ms. Kaidanow. Although she was reluctant to leave, her father insisted. As Lenna courageously hid Ms. Kaidanow, she changed her name to Marusia, which was a common Christian name. They stayed with various relatives until Russian forces liberated Dubno.

Later, Ms. Kaidanow’s aunt was willing to take her to Russia to eventually immigrate to the United States. After her departure, she never saw Lenna again. Upon arriving in Russia, Ms. Kaidanow traveled to Germany. There, her aunt and uncle figured that the only way they could reach America would be to send their son, a boy named Victor, and Ms. Kaidanow to an orphanage. In doing so, Ms. Kaidanow and her cousin were sent to the United States, and her aunt and uncle arrived eight months later. In the U.S., Ms. Kaidanow’s name was changed one more time, to Ellen.
The speaker related her mother-in-law’s experience to her own. She was born Jewish but was adopted by a Christian family. She added, “This is a void that [Ms. Kaidanow] and I share.”

Rabbi Paris said, “I hoped that the students would hear the compelling story and not only better understand the horror of the way Jews and others were treated during the Holocaust but also find hope in the story….The story exemplified how we need to be upstanders, not bystanders. Even if it is not on such a large scale, there are things all of us can do to stand up to bullies and to hate crimes, intolerance, injustice, etc. Only if each of us have the courage to do the right thing will this world have any chance of being healed.”

Rabbi Paris added that she “hoped that students would see the importance of preserving the stories of these survivors. Once they are gone, we cannot let their stories die with them.” Along similar lines, Rev. Brundige thought that “telling the one story she did in all its nuances was powerful and effective.”

Some students were confused why the speaker related her personal story to the one she told.Kobe Tray ’19 said, “The message was good, but she tried to make some interesting parallels to her adoption, which was a good story to lead into the discussion, but I didn’t really see the relevance.”

Kamsi Iloeje ’19 said, “I think the topic of her speech was very important, seeing as the Holocaust is an event that still touches many people today. For me, though, I was confused every time she compared her adoption story to her mother-in-law’s story only because the comparison seemed a bit extreme.”

Rev. Brundige thought that the speaker was trying to show that “in a very small way all of us can have a place of empathy to try to image — though we could never — what people who survived the Holocaust went through.” Rev. Brundige thought that the speaker was trying to demonstrate her small way of empathizing, as she dealt with a degree of loneliness and hardship in her life. Rev. Brundige added, “I thought what she was doing was effective, but I can understand why it may have been confusing to others.”

In the midst of concerning levels of anti-semitism in the United States and the world at large, Ms. Kaidanow asked the audience “to remember Lenna and her family.” In doing so, the speaker hoped that the Choate community would realize how much of an impact Lenna had on her mother-in-law and would apply that same compassion to one’s own life. At the end of her talk, Ms. Kaidanow said, “Never give up, never lose hope, and be grateful for everything you do have.”

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