Eliazer asked Eliana Matalon in Spanish how to deal with the memories — of gangs snatching people and killing them in front of him — that he has of trying to get from Guatemala to the United States.
Matalon, a Holocaust survivor, replied in the same tongue: Don’t dwell on them. Focus on getting an education. Improve yourself. Become a good man.
A Holocaust survivor isn’t an everyday sighting in a Fair Haven School classroom. Nor is a Holocaust survivor speaking fluent Spanish.
Both those sightings took place Thursday in a classroom at Fair Haven School.
Matalon, an 80-year-old Newtown resident by way of Belgium and other European and South American countries in between, stopped by to talk to the fifth and sixth grade students of bilingual teacher David Weinreb.
A few months ago the students finished a book called Hana’s Suitcase, in which they learned about a Japanese Holocaust museum curator’s quest to unearth the story of a young Jewish girl, Hana Brady, executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Weinreb, who teaches about 80 percent of his class in Spanish, said his students, many from Puerto Rico and countries like Guatemala and Ecuador, had no knowledge of Jewish people prior to reading the book. But he said they greatly identified with the story of having to flee their country. Many of Weinreb’s students are in a classroom on U.S. soil for the first time in their young lives.
“My students from Guatemala and Ecuador have done some crazy things to get here,” he said. “Not many are running from a war, but a bunch of their parents have said to me that they left because it wasn’t safe, that they wanted their child to be in a place that was safe.”
Given their engagement with Hana’s story, Weinreb decided to reach out to an organization that his father, Daniel, is connected to,The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains and its speaker’s bureau, with hopes of finding a Spanish-speaking Holocaust survivor.
The quest stalled immediately. He persisted. That tenacity led him to Matalon.
Born in Belgium just five years after Hana Brady, Matalon shared a different side of the terror — the survival side — that Jewish families like hers encountered escaping Nazi-occupied Europe. She was only 4 years old when the family fled their home in Belgium. They narrowly survived a bombing near the French border. She and her mother were forced to separate from her father when he was conscripted to fight in the Czechoslovakian Army.
They were forced into a detention camp with no food near the border of Spain. She witnessed a mother and child killed by a train when the trainmaster wouldn’t stop it so the mother could get her child off. An altercation with the trainmaster landed her father in jail. Such incidents would dot her young life until the family reconnected with relatives in Brazil and later in Argentina.
Matalon knows what it’s like to be undocumented. The family had to return to Europe because it lacked the proper documents. Soon after it was forced into a German concentration camp. The life was not easy, she told the students in Spanish.
But the family survived, eventually returning to Argentina for good when she was almost 7.
Despite the terrifying start to her life, Matalon grew up to study at the University of London, learn nine languages and immigrate to the U.S. in 1970. She told the students that no matter what happened in their lives before they arrived here, going forward, they should dedicate their lives to improving themselves, to studying and being a good person.
“I strongly believe in the kindness of the human race,” she said afterward in English. “If you want to become somebody, you can.”
Weinreb said the class has been exploring human rights. It is now reading a book about a Mexican family living and working as itinerant farmers in California in the 1960s. “It’s hitting closer to home in some ways,” he said.
Through the book’s characters the students are confronting the idea of being forced to speak only English in a classroom. They compare that idea to their own experience of attending a school that encourages students to celebrate their culture and their language by not forcing them to learn English right away.
Thursday’s cross-culture, intergenerational dialogue was a proud moment for Weinreb, who is Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.
“This matters to me because it’s what we’re reading, and Holocaust survivor education and social justice education is part and parcel of my family identity,” he said. “To see them so engaged and asking such strong questions—I just love the practice they got today.”