Holocaust book resonates for teens learning English

High school teacher Jessica Vaughn’s students have no trouble relating to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler in the 1930s. Whether from Latin America, Southeast Asia or the Middle East, the teens know what it means to flee one’s homeland for safety. Most have refugees in their own families.

That explains why teaching the Holocaust through the book “The Children of Willesden Lane” resonated with her English Language Development class at San Lorenzo’s Arroyo High School.

Written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, the book recounts the story of Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, a Jewish piano prodigy forced at age 14 to flee Nazi-occupied Austria in the 1938 Kindertransport to England. She eventually immigrated to California and raised two daughters, Mona and Renee, both of whom became classical pianists as well.

 

Students attending “The Children of Willesden Lane” at Herbst Theatre on Nov. 7. photo/trish tunney

The S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Center used the book to create “The Children of Willesden Lane BIG READ,” a Holocaust education program for grades 6-12 in the public schools. According to the center’s education director, Morgan Blum Schneider, it is “the largest Holocaust education initiative the Bay Area has ever seen, and the biggest program JFCS has talen on in its history.”

 

“We’re looking to further Holocaust education in the post-survivor era,” Schneider said. “We ask ourselves, what is the best way to engage students when the survivors are no longer with us?”

The center is certainly trying. Vaughn and hundreds of other Bay Area teachers attended a training session last summer. Teachers who signed up received a resource guide with lesson plans, pre-reading activity suggestions, period maps, historical timelines and as many copies of the book as they would need.

“I didn’t know about the Kindertransport before,” Vaughn said of the effort to send German and Austrian Jewish children to safety in England. Nearly 10,000 crossed the English Channel between December 1938 and September 1939, many of them never to see their families again.

Now her students know all about it.

“All of them love Lisa as a character,” Vaughn continued. “Most students are immigrants and connect to a story of moving to a new country.”

Christian Lopez, 16, takes a turn leading a discussion. He asks his classmates how Lisa might have been feeling while lying in her bedroom in London as the bombs from the Blitz fall nearby. He asks if things are not so different now from the conditions of the time of the Nazis.

A student named Jose answers in the affirmative. “Yes,” he says. “Trump. He’s a racist. He wants to build a wall.” Another student, Kevin Lopez, responds: “Syria. People are leaving their homes. There’s a war going on.”

After class, some of the students reflect on the book and its meaning. “What this 14-year-old went through is really crazy,” said Christian. “She hasn’t lost hope. American youth, we’re so used to having everything come to us quick, we can lose hope.”

Added Kevin, “When I read the book, it makes me think my life is easy.”

Making “The Children of Willesden Lane” truly come to life, the course culminated with eight performances of Golabek’s one-woman musical play based on the book, and held at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre Nov. 7-10. Some 7,000 students, teachers and Holocaust survivors attended the shows.

Adding extra meaning to the events, the Nov. 9 performances coincided with the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Night of Broken Glass, during which thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned shops were destroyed across Germany and Austria. Lisa Jura endured Kristallnacht as a girl in Vienna.

Jessica Vaughn was delighted that her students, all of whom are learning English as a second language, took to the book and its message.

“It’s so hard to get [English language learners] excited about reading,” Vaughn said. “They are very invested in this book.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.