A hush fell over the auditorium as Holocaust survivor Zdena Berger took the stage.
As the diminutive 86-year-old read aloud from two different chapters of her book, the “autobiographical novel” “Tell Me Another Morning,” a 500-person audience listened, enraptured — despite the fact that they knew what was coming next. Not only had they all read the book recently, they’d been discussing, making art and creating theatrical interpretations of it for the past three weeks.
For the students at San Francisco’s Mercy High School, a Catholic college prep school for girls, Berger’s story of survival at Auschwitz was more than a reading assignment. As part of the school’s ninth annual Courage and Spirit series, Berger was one of 12 survivors honored in person over the course of two weeks for their bravery in the face of genocide.
During the school day from March 7 to 18 — in addition to a JFCS-organized “Day of Learning” for both students and educators March 13 — students listened to speakers, studied works of literature and art by survivors, and discussed the Holocaust’s relevance to current issues. An art opening and reception March 8 featured survivor Judith Meisel alongside her daughter Mina Cohen, whose artwork tells her mother’s story. Cohen’s artwork was on display at the school for the duration of the weeks’ events.
While a social-justice-themed speaker series isn’t an anomaly at a Catholic school, the emphasis Mercy places on the study of the Holocaust arguably goes above and beyond. Under the leadership of teacher Jim McGarry –— who doubles as director of the Helen and Joe Farkas Center for the Study of the Holocaust, an educational and community center housed on campus — the high school’s ethics curriculum draws on stories of the Holocaust year-round.
“I’m among a group of people who believe the Holocaust changed everything for Catholic theology,” McGarry explained. “I’m hoping this can be just one small piece of progress — which is long overdue — in Jewish-Catholic relations.”
McGarry noted that discussing prejudice and violence toward groups other than Catholics is squarely in line with the school’s general view of religion. “We see faith as nonexclusive,” he explained. “We have students from all different backgrounds, and this is the kind of school where they should all feel comfortable.”
Roughly 70 percent of Mercy’s student body is Catholic. Lauren Weiser, a Jewish freshman who took part in a dramatic reading of Berger’s work for the assembly, said participating in the series as a religious minority on campus has helped her connect with her Jewish identity in a new way.
“I went to Brandeis [Hillel Day School] before this, and of course we did Jewish stuff every day,” she said with a laugh. “I thought that after coming here I would have to just do it on my own … but I actually get to share my opinions a lot because people don’t know as much about Judaism.
“Other students ask me questions. I’ll be sitting in religious studies and when we talk about Catholic things I can raise my hand and say, ‘Well, in the Jewish religion, it’s like this.’ It can be challenging, but I actually feel like people really respect me for it.”
Weiser said participating in the survivor events has added a new layer to her understanding of how the Holocaust affected everyone — not just the Jews.
“Last year I went to Israel and I went to all the memorials and museums, and to come back here and hear it again, with these people, somehow it touched me even more,” she said. “I like that no matter where you are, you can always feel connected to these survivors’ stories. They’re always around you.”
Sister Judy Carle, who along with Mercy’s art, drama and choir teachers was instrumental in organizing the day’s student presentations, said she thought it was entirely appropriate for Mercy to focus so heavily on the Holocaust — because genocide is still, unfortunately, a modern issue.
“It comes back to ‘never again,’ ” she explained. “That’s the whole value of retelling these stories. And yet, you look at where we are now, how many genocides have there been since then? Five? Six? You look at what’s going on in Sudan — we have to keep talking about this.”
As far as the school’s Catholic denomination, Carle said it never limits the curriculum. “We view issues through a Catholic lens,” she explained. “But we never stop there.”
If students’ reactions to Berger’s words are any indication, Mercy’s approach seems to be reaching students where it counts. Junior Monica Garrett said that though this was her third year participating in the series, she got something new out of it each time.
“There are so few survivors left, and we know that in a few years we won’t be able to meet them. This series can’t continue that much longer,” she said as she watched her school choir take the stage to perform John Lennon’s “Imagine” — a note of hope to close out the day’s activities.
Garrett added, “It makes each part of this so special.”