Monday, October 13, 2014

Cipora Katz: May Her Memory Be for a Blessing

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Cipora Katz, Holocaust survivor
Cipora Katz, Holocaust Surivor
In a progressive religious environment, it can be a challenge to get kids to continue their education after they become bar or bat mitzvah. One way our synagogue meets that challenge is to offer the post b'nai mitzvah kids an exciting and unusual curriculum, The Jewish Lens.

I don't know if we use that exact curriculum or one inspired by it, but I do know the program is a hit. And thanks to the leadership of Liz and Rich, it's a dynamic program that changes from year to year. Each new class of students picks a theme for the end-of-year gallery display. My older son's class did "10 Modern Plagues" my younger son's class did something entirely different.


Heavy, huh? They had, of course, learned about the Holocaust and knew something of the Rwandan genocide, they also learned about the Cambodian genocide that started in 1975 and was immortalized in the movie, The Killing Fields.

They decided their final exhibit would be a portrait gallery featuring survivors of genocide. They would pay tribute to those people by listening to and sharing their stories, along with photos.

The class took a field trip to the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. It's a very small museum on Chicago's north side that is worth a visit. They don't seem to have a website, but you can learn more in this piece from Chicago Public Radio. Some of the students did their interview and photo sessions on site after meeting a handful of survivors.

My son was hoping to meet with a Holocaust survivor, but the one woman who came to mind was too ill to talk with him and then fortuitously, I found myself seated across from a man at a random community event who promised to introduce me to Cipora Katz.

Cipora Katz Holocaust survivor

A few phone calls later and my son and I were off to meet her for an interview. Cipora was a tiny woman, even I felt tall next to her, but her presence was grand.

In my son's words, "She was a really nice person who had gone through a lot in life and was still strong. I think she wanted to spread her story to help stop anything like the Holocaust from happening again,"

She shared her story of survival. Her family had avoided the camps, but spent years, I think from when she was 4 until she was 7, living in a potato cellar with a handful of relatives. She was the only one who could stand up in the space.

When they first fled her village, her mother stayed behind waiting for Cipora's older sister to return home from a playdate. The pair was never heard from again.

Can you imagine?

Cipora talked about not understanding the war and wondering what horrible thing she could have done as a child that people hated her and her family so much that they had to live underground for years.

She showed us a mint tin loaded with sugar cubes like the one her uncle had packed for each member of their party when they ran from home. She told us how they eventually found shelter and what she could recall from those cold dark years (including the death of her father) in that same small, dark, dank space.

Cipora made it to Israel after the war and eventually came to the United States in her late teens. She received a nursing degree, married, and had a family of her own as well as a successful career.

It was not until she had reached midlife, that she began speaking up about her past. Her daughter encouraged her and, like my son, I think Cipora ultimately felt a responsibility to educate others.

She traveled around the Midwest sharing her story at schools, libraries and houses of worship. She was so full of energy at the gallery opening in May, I was shocked to learn of her passing.

May her memory be for a blessing.

1 comment:

Jen said...

So glad your son got to interview her.