Recent Happenings

 

Students at St. Michael's Episcopal School showed keen interest about the editing process of "Izzy's Fire." Our discussion followed a PowerPoint presentation where I shared multiple photos I had taken while in Lithuania.

Several events have taken place since I last posted on this site. I’ve been traveling a great deal, which makes it difficult to post consistently. However, I want to thank three different groups who have been kind enough to invite me to speak. The first one is St Michael’s Episcopal School, which is near Richmond. The students were so respectful and many asked insightful questions. The appreciation they showed, along with wonderful enthusiasm from their teachers and librarians, made me glad that I’m still interacting with school groups. It also gives me hope that these children (our future) will go forward with more knowledge of how to be more tolerant of those who are different.

(LtoR) Inge Horowitz, President of Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery joined me and Simon Sibelman, as well as Jan Shaughnessy, program chair for the author’s event that took place recently in Richmond.

The Catholic Woman’s Club (Richmond) asked me to  be the speaker for their bi-annual author’s luncheon where they raise  money for scholarships.  My presentation had special meaning for the group, since it was a Catholic farm family who risked their lives to save the 13 Jews I write about in “Izzy’s Fire. I asked Simon Sibelman, the executive director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, to share the time I was allowed. A noted scholar on the Holocaust and wonderful speaker, Simon offered special insight into the subject.

A third, and very special event, took place April 7. As a Christian, I was humbled to be the keynote speaker at the Yom HaShoah program for the Jewish Educational Alliance (JEA) in Savannah, Georgia. The service to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day  is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories, and for the Jewish resistance in that period.

Drawing on my life as a farmer’s daughter, I chose to speak on my memories of farm life and how my father taught me to sow seeds and carefully tend the tender plants. It is my hope that “Izzy’s Fire” can be used to sow the seeds of tolerance. My presentation followed a very moving candlelight service held to honor memories of loved ones lost during the Holocaust. Prior to the service, the names of victims had been read aloud for many hours. The hallways in the building were graced by numerous pieces of art supplied by children from Ramdam Day School and St. Vincent’s Academy, their powerful work giving special significance to the event. In the photo below, Jennifer Rich, director of programming for the JEA and the Savannah Jewish Federation, paused for a moment to appreciate the art with me and Rabbi Robert Haas, rabbi of Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Rabbi Haas had just closed the Yom HaShoah service, attended by about 300 people, with the Mourner’s Kaddish Prayer.

Looking Back on 2012

Several notable events took place in 2012 that I need to update. A book trailer for “Izzy’s Fire” was finalized and added to the banner of this website. Please have a look and be sure to share with your friends.

The Summer Language Institute at the University of Pittsburg provided a scholarship so I could take a second course in Lithuanian, while a friend supported my living expenses while I stayed in Pittsburgh. I can scarely believe my good fortune.

Dr. Simon Sibelman became the new director of the Virginia Holocaust Museum (VHM) here in Richmond on July 1 . He continues to impress as he moves the museum forward in a variety of new directions. I wrote about him in my monthly column (Reflections, July 2012 – Richmond magazine) You can read the column online by going to http://richmondmagazine.com/?articleID=9f4d.

I was pleasantly surprised in September when “Nemunas,” the noted arts publication in Kaunas, Lithuania, requested photos and an excerpt from my young adult historical novel, which hasn’t been published yet. Titled “The Little Lion,” the book is set in Kovno Ghetto and details the bravery of Labaile Gillman, a Jewish teenager who saved several family members from certain death. My agent hopes to have a publisher soon. Translation and organizational work of the excerpt was orchestrated by Nomeda Repsyte, a dear Lithuanian friend (from Kaunas) who has supported me wholeheartedly since we first met several years ago. One of Nomeda’s photos also appeared in the article. It proves to me that Lithuanians are very much interested in their past history.

That was proven to me in spades during November of last year when Skaiste Aniuliene, Consul General of Lithuania in Chicago, invited me to speak in Chicago and also in Michigan at several commemorative events marking 2011 as the Year of Holocaust Remembrance, so designated by the Lithuanian Parliament.

At the same time, the Consul General also premiered a film by Rimas Markunas, a native Lithuanian, who orchestrated a documentary of a Lithuanian man saving several Jews, ultimately resulting in him being named as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Rimas and I became friends during my first visit to Lithuania, when he had just begun making the documentary. I was privileged to share the film with the Consul General and thrilled that she made it available for the first time to U.S. audiences prior to my presentations.

Carl Wilkens, Co-Founder of World Outside My Shoes, signs his book, "I'm Not Leaving," during a break at the LaFrak Conference.

Educational conferences continue to hold special appeal. In October I attended the Ethel LaFrak Holocaust Education Conference in Greensburg, PA. The kind folks at Seton Hill University, who coordinate the conference every three years, offered “Izzy’s Fire” for sale through their bookstore as well. A special highlight was a attending an exhibit of paintings by Sam Bak, an internationally known artist and Holocaust survivor of Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania. I had the joy of meeting Sam while I was in Lithuania a few years back.

Another highlight was meeting Carl Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda  during the genocide of 1994. His book, “I’m Not Leaving,” makes for riveting reading. He will return to the Virginia Holocaust Museum this summer to offer a presentation from his ongoing work.

Alan and Halina Zimm, Holocaust survivors, at the 2012 Kristallnacht ceremony held at Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemtery in Richmond,VA.

I continue to speak publicly about “Izzy’s Fire” and am always inspired by students who tell me that they continue to learn from it. I’m delighted to report that the book is still being taught in many classrooms, especially the eighth grade. The Virginia Holocaust Museum also uses it as a text for the Holocaust education classes offered through the Alexander Lebenstein Teacher Institute at the musuem. The graduate-level course is taught each summer in conjunction with the University of Richmond and offers CEUs to teahers who attend.

In early November 2012, my heart was touched anew as I attended the annual Kristallnacht ceremony at the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery here in Richmond, VA, organized every year by Inge Horowitz, a dear friend and someone I consider as a gift from God. During that ceremony, in November 1997, I first heard Alan Zimm recite the names of his lost loved ones who had perished. I left the cemetery that day knowing that my life, as well as my work, had been changed forever by that gentleman’s soft voice. It has now been 15 years, and my work remains unfinished. It was wonderful to see Mr.Zimm and his wife, Halina (also a survivor), at the ceremony this year. It gave me a chance to remind him, again, of how his experiences continue to act as inspiration for me.

Another notable appearance happened in November 2012, when the Jewish Educational Alliance in Savannah, GA, asked me to speak during a luncheon. The event was memorable because of the individuals I met but was made even more memorable because I was also able to tour Mickve Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in America.

Mikve Israel, one of the oldest synagoges in the United States, is located in Savannah.

Jennifer Rich, Director of Community Programs and Adam Solender, Exectuvie Director of the Jewish Educational Alliance in Savannah, GA, agree to a photograph on a picture-perfect day in November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C-Span Author Interview

My dear nephew, Cris Kelley, has just done me the honor of resurrecting an interview done by C-Span shortly after “Izzy’s Fire” was first published. This is even more meaningful to me because my nephew lives in Germany. I don’t know how he ran across the interview, since it was done in 2006, but it was surely a nice surprise. Find the video on my Facebook page.

Yom HaShoah – A Day of Remembrance – April 19, 2012

(L-R) Barry Mann, Steve Neill - Editor, The Catholic Virginian, Virginija Vasiliauskiene, and Nancy

Today is known as Yom HaShoah, a day when Holocaust martrys and heroes are honored throughout the world. It is also the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, where millions lost their lives, primarily because of their faith. There are so many victims of the Holocaust that it boggles the mind. There are also many saviors, individuals who risked their very lives, and that of their families, in an effort to reach for the highest moral ground and protect those being subjugated. Those non-Jewish individuals who saved Jews (for no reward) hold the designation of being called “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor bestowed only by Yad Vashem, The World Center for Holocaust Research and Education in Jerusalem. It is impossible to say how many individuals saved Jews, as many were executed, along with those they were saving, for their humanitarian efforts.

I recently had the privilege of visiting with a friend, Virginija Vasiliauskiene, whose mother, grandparents and uncle saved eight Jews from Kovno Ghetto in Kaunas, Lithuania, during the Holocaust. Those four individuals were subsequently declared “Righteous Among the Nation.” Virginija and her husband, Barry Mann, live in El Paso. I have visited in their home and they were my house guests recently. They have played a very important part in my life. Barry, a South African Jew, met and married Virginija, a Catholic, several years after he learned of her family’s history. Barry’s mother was born in Kaunas but escaped the Holocaust by moving to South Africa. Virginija still maintains a residence in Kaunas and I have stayed there on both of my visits to Lithuania. The two of them have been extremely supportive of me over the years. I met them through Gadi Shlom, who lives in Israel, the son of my beloved late friend, Emmanuel (Mannie)Shlom. Mannie was one of the little boys I wrote about in “Izzy’s Fire,” and we developed a special relationship while I was writing the book.

Gadi Shlom and Nancy in Israel

While the Manns were in Richmond, I had the privilege of taking them to visit the Virginia Holocaust Museum, to meet several of my friends and also to meet Steve Neill, editor of the Catholic Virginian. Steve spent a long time interviewing them, and an article is scheduled to published in that newspaper very soon. One of the Jews that Virginija’s family saved is Henry Kellen. Henry, now 97, established the
El Paso Holocaust Musuem and I had the privilege of speaking there some time back. Because of my respect for Barry and Virginija, I donated a case of books to the museum so they could use “Izzy’s Fire” in their trunk initiative, a program where a teacher borrows a trunk filled with Holocaust literature. When the class has studied the information, the trunk is returned to the museum for other teachers to use.

It is my sincere hope that through studying historical books and documents, the students of today will be able to see the world in a more global sprectrum and become more understanding of their fellowman. It is, in my opinion, our only defense against a future Holocaust.

North Carolina Book Club Visits

One of the great joys of being an author is to hear that book clubs are studying “Izzy’s Fire.” Recently, Daphne Key, of Clayton, NC, called to say that a friend from Richmond, VA (where I live) had suggested her club read “Izzy.” A retired teacher from Northern Virginia, Daphne took the subject very seriously. She contacted me and we both came up with questions for the group, which included several other teachers. I was most impressed when I learned that these ladies, about 14 of them, actually cordoned off a 9′x12′x4′ area and sat inside that area to discuss the book. The aforementioned space was the area referred to as the “potato hole” in “Izzy’s Fire,” the area where nine Jewish adults and four little boys lived underground for weeks during the Holocaust. It is by the grace of God and a truly unselfish Catholic farm family, who risked their lives, to help ensure their survival. There are still six survivors living, after almost sixty years since their liberation, a testament to the strength that helped them overcome the perils that befell their family members during World War II.

After the book group had completed reading “Izzy,” Daphne orchestrated a road trip – 3 hours each way – to come to visit the Virginia Holocaust Museum here in Richmod. I was privileged to meet this great group of women. They treated me to a gift basket, as well as a wonderful lunch at The Jefferson Hotel following their museum tour. I have spoken to many book clubs over the last few years but have never met one quite as industrious as this one. I’m still in touch with them and hope to see them again in the not too distant future. I’d tell you their club name, but they haven’t decided on one as yet. Stay tuned.

Beginning a New Year

(L-R) Alexsas Modestas and Sal Janusonis of Chicagoland-Lithuanians Rotary Club, joined me in Skokie, Il (Nov 2010), when I spoke on "Izzy's Fire" at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.

Fresh beginnings are important, but it’s also a time to give credit for the past. Skaiste Aniuliene, Consul General for the Republic of Lithuania in Chicago, invited me to speak several times in November 2010, in accordance with the Lithuanian Parliament’s declaration that 2011 would be a year of remembrance for Holocaust victims. I was honored to share the story of “Izzy’s Fire” and the courageous Catholic farm family from Lithuania who saved the 13 Jews I wrote about.

I had the privilege of speaking at the Illinois Holocaust & Education Museum (Skokie, IL), the Balzekas Lithuanian Cultural Museum (Chicago, IL) and at the University of Chicago, in the class taught by Professor Giedrius Subačius. Later, I also spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Center at Farmington Hills, MI, the first Holocaust museum to be built in the U.S.

Each time I give a presentation, I learn that “Izzy’s Fire” continues to be meaningful and I’m encouraged to find many readers interested in the story. While the Holocaust as a whole is overwhelmingly tragic, we cannot lose sight of the few courageous individuals who risked their very lives to save Jews who were such hateful objects of discrimination. It is through programs like the ones sponsored by the Lithuanian Consulate that their story continues to be heard.

Arvydas Sabrinskas, president of Kaunas Rotary Club in Kaunas, Lithuania in 2009, presenting his club flag. Behind us hangs the Brandermill Rotary Club flag.

The New Year will bring a new challenge, that of bringing to fruition the joint project of three Rotary clubs that’s been in the making for some time. Following my visits to Lithuania in 2009 and 2010, where I spoke at the Kaunas Rotary Club, I was introduced to the Chicagoland Rotary Club of Lithuanians (by telephone). That club is made up of all Lithuanians who now reside in Chicago. I subsequently spoke at their club and asked them to join with my club, Brandermill Rotary (Midlothian, VA) on a project to benefit children in an orphanage in Kaunas. It is my joy to include a link to the story from www.rotary.org about the new formation of the Triple Sister Clubs Project.

 

December is a time of rejoicing in all things.

During the process of writing and publishing “Izzy’s Fire,” and then traveling to do presentations over the past 14 years, I have experienced miracles, not the least of which was how I was able to visit Lithuania (twice) and Israel and speak in both countries about the book, which I plan to write about later. Right now, though, I am especially reminded of miracles during this time each year when many people celebrate this most special season,which includes Christmas and Hanukkah.

At Christmas,my Christian friends and I celebrate the birth of Jesus. During Hanukkah, my Jewish friends and I celebrate the Festival of Lights. Each holiday is considered precious and rightly so. I have been a Christian since I was 12 years old, and Judaism has become evermore special to me since 1997, when I embarked on the journey that still leads me to write about Judaic subjects, as well as the Holocaust.

On Sunday, December 11, 2011, there was another very special celebration, which was–beyond a shadow of a doubt–also a miracle. Hundreds of friends and family gathered to celebrate the 100th birthday of Edna Ipson at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, VA. Her son, Jay, has been the director of the museum since its inception in 1997. I spent many hours sitting in the “potato hole,” an area recreated in the museum to resemble the hiding place at the Catholic farm family’s home in Lithuania where the three Ipsons and 10 others lived for some time during the Holocaust, until their liberation by the Russian Army. I used that time to try and realize what the experience must have been like for them, trying to capture it for inclusion in “Izzy’s Fire.”

I wrote about the 13, as well as one other family member, Sara Gillman, who was about 3 years old when she was secreted out of the Kovno Ghetto by her courageous cousin, Labaile Gillman. He ultimately lost his life while trying to save other family members, but Sara lived to grow up, marry, become a doctor and move to Canada where, at 70, she still works and enjoys her five grandchildren. While I spoke wih her during the process of writing “Izzy’s Fire,” gathering her parents’ information to include in the book, and even in May 2011, to tell her I had written another book, about Labaile and the Gillman family, I never dreamed I’d ever meet her. Imagine my unbridled joy when I did see her for the very first time, at Mrs. Ipson’s party. She and her sister, Luiba, along with their uncle, Israel Gillman (one of the survivors who is now 90) and his daughter, Etty, had traveled to celebrate Mrs. Ipson’s momentous occasion. They all reside in Canada.

Now, during the holiday of miracles, I’m reminded again of Ona and Vaclovas Paskauskas and her son, Stanislovis Krivicius, who risked their very lives to save those 13 Jews, Sara’s parents among them. What a sacrifice that must have been for them. Without the courage of that family, the miracle of Mrs. Ipson’s birthday would not have occurred, and what a loss for the world that would have been. It has been my privilege to write about her life, and it is because of her, along with my beloved late mother (of blessed memory), Beulah Mae Wright, that “Izzy’s Fire” was brought to light.

Today marks the anniversary of another day in December that will always be very special to me. On December 13, 2010, Rebecca Quesenberry, then a teacher at Elizabeth B. Davis Middle School in Chester, Va, called to say that she had organized an additional 19 teachers and that, together, they were going to teach “Izzy’s Fire” to all 450 seventh-grade pupils in the school. I’m still in awe that Becky, who has since retired, decided to undertake that task and will be eternally grateful. To have that kind of response to a self-published book was, to me, simply a miracle.

Fall Always Brings Memories

On November 9, 1997, my life was irrevocably changed. Months earlier I had been asked by Gwen Woolf, an editor at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va, to write a story about the Virginia Holocaust Museum, which had been established in Richmond, Va. I refused because I found the Holocaust such an awful subject.

Gwen kept after me to do the story, and following months of promopting from her about the assignment, I decided to attend the Kristallnacht ceremony that is held every year at the Emek Sholom Holocaust Memorial Cemetery in Richmond. I was determined to go to the service and still refuse to fulfill Gwen’s request. After all, at that time, I didn’t know one Jew in Richmond, so I beileved I could just blend into the crowd and then quietly leave.

I was fine until the survivors walked to the microphone to recite the names of their lost loved ones. The final man, Alan Zimm, quietly began to say the numerous names of his family members who had been killed. For some odd reason, I started counting the names on my fingers. I ran out of fingers before he finished reciting the names of his loved ones. I began to cry and realized at that moment that I had to write about these courageous people. The Holocaust had been reduced to one family and I could identify with Mr. Zimm’s agony. I could not imagine having my family slaughtered because I am a Christian. I told Mr. Zimm that day that he had changed my life. He continues to be a constant encouragement to me. I, nor my life, have ever been the same since our meeting.

I subsequently visited the Virginia Holocaust Museum, wrote the story for Gwen and found a calling that I have not been able to shed until this day. Many of my columns and numerous stories about Holocaust survivors have appeared in Richmond magazine. “Izzy’s Fire: Finding Humanity in the Holocaust” is the direct result of having met my wonderful friend, Edna Ipson, who suffered so much during World War II. We ultimately worked together for seven years, and I used her voice, as well as her husband’s memoirs (coupled with other Jews who were with them) to tell the story of “Izzy’s Fire.” She has been, and remains, one of the greatest influences on my life.

Recently I was at the annual Kristallnacht ceremony where my dear friend, Inge Horowitz, led the service as she has done every year since I first attended. I hugged her after the service and told her that I had no idea that I would still be attending the service some 14 years after I first met her. She, and so many of my Jewish friends, have been such blessings to my life. I am so richer for having known them. When I think of the agony of writing “Izzy’s Fire,” I always have to remember the friends, extended family and love I’ve gained in my life. It makes it all worthwhile.

It’s All Worthwhile

Recently I wrote that 450 seventh graders at Elizabeth B. Davis Middle School in Chester, Virginia, had studied “Izzy’s Fire” during the final months of the 2010 school year. I have heard from many of them and some have posted comments on this blog, offering their opinions and saying encouraging things that I’m very grateful for. An incident that happened during the last weeks of school, though, was a defining moment for me. Rebecca Quesenberry, who retired after 42 years of teaching, the last one at Davis where she coordinated 20 teachers and the “Izzy” classroom project, told me something I will always treasure. Becky said that word had reached her about how two young male students had come to the defense of one of the school’s students. It seems a cheerleader was bullying another girl, a very shy one. The young men intervened and explained that bullying should not be happening and they expected it to stop, which it did. When Becky asked them why they decided to take a stand in this particular incident, they told her that it was the result of having studied “Izzy’s Fire.”

When Becky shared that story with me, she was immensely proud and we were both deeply touched. It underscored the hard work I had put into writing the book and Becky had put into teaching it, making it all worthwhile. It also proved something I learned as a child. My parents always taught me that you plant a garden and hope for rain and good weather so it will grow. The same can be said of writing a book. An author doesn’t always know what happens after the seeds are planted. I consider myself blessed to have dedicated teachers like Becky who water and nourish the plants to maturity.

Where did the summer go?

I can scarcely believe that in just a few short months, we’ll be facing ice and snow. The summer of 2011 has been a difficult time in Virginia. After weeks of sweltering temperatures, there was an earthquake, followed by a hurricane. Untold financial damage was done, and it took days to restore power to everyone in Richmond, VA, where I live. Seeing all the houses in darkness reminded me of times when I was a child growing up on a farm in Southwest Virginia. Even though there was no running water or inside bathrooms, I look back on that time with much affection. There was no television either, so my brother and two sisters and I had to “make do,” as our dear mother would say, by entertaining each other. I will always remember how our mother used to line all four of us up in chairs, then open a dictionary. She would call out words and have little prizes for the child who answered correctly. I cannot imagine how much that expanded my vocabulary and believe that it was one thing that started me on the path to writing. I know it certainly taught me to love words. Over the years, my mother remained my greatest influence and always my inspiration. She never gave up. Never. I remember talking with her after I had become a mother myself and was struggling with several issues. She quietly said, “Sleep on it. Things always look better in the morning.” That is still good advice that I plan to apply as I now enter a quiet phase in my life. Although I am continuing to write my monthly column (Reflections) for Richmond magazine, I am not working on a book. However, I recently finished a young adult historical novel, also set in Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania during World War II, but it is as yet unpublished. It was written as a thesis for my master of fine arts in children’s literature, which I earned in May 2011 at Hollins University. I will always be indebted to Neil November for providing the funding for my education. When the book is pubished, it will be dedicated to Neil, my friend and ardent supporter. For now, I plan to use the next few months to rest, read and recharge my batteries before beginning another project. If you have suggestions, I’d be interested in hearing from you.