Garrett Rawlings' Bar Mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony for young Jews, was coming up and part of the preparation was to perform a tzedakah project opening the door to an adult life steeped in ritual but including social action as well.
When a family friend told him about a Holocaust survivor living in St. Louis, Mo., who had a son living in Ketchum, Rawlings phoned Sara Moses for an interview.
Moses, 73, had only recently and reluctantly taken her story of life in Nazi concentration camps to audiences across the country. Rawlings represented exactly the demographic she was compelled to reach.
Coming together over a tradition and needing an outlet for social action, the pair decided that an in-person appearance was in order. As part of his process, Garrett secured donations for what became his seventh-grade "tolerance project" to pay for Moses to fly to the Community School to speak.
"Our children are watching," she said Tuesday. "They will not learn from what we say, but what we do. And evildoers exist in our daily lives, in our families, our schoolyards all the way up to dictatorships. It is our silence that gives them strength."
When she takes the stage to talk to Community school students this Friday afternoon, Moses will tell a painful story about how her mother was taken from her and murdered by the Nazis when Moses was 5. She will share her life in the Jewish ghetto and two Nazi concentration camps that began shortly after Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and started World War II.
Within weeks, the Polish army was defeated, and the Nazis began their campaign to destroy cultures and enslave peoples whom they viewed as "subhuman." Poles and Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. The Nazis also kidnapped as many as 50,000 "Aryan"-looking Polish children and took them to Germany to be adopted by German families.
Many children were sent to special children's camps. Moses was one of those children. Most of those imprisoned with her died of starvation, lethal injection or disease. When British troops finally liberated her camp, Moses was sick with typhus, starving and barely alive among decomposing bodies, human waste and lice.
She lost 150 family members and though she was reunited later with her father, she found him to be "a very damaged person and extremely angry and he had no faith."
"He prided himself on being an atheist and I grew up very angry too. [But] I am teachable and I listened and I learned that anger would not serve me well or my children or make for a better world. Lack of forgiveness, anger and bitterness can be very destructive."
When Garrett called, the most pressing question on his young mind was to know if Moses had forgiven her abusers.
"I'm only a human being and with my intelligence and my intellect, I do forgive. To blame all Germans is to be prejudiced. I think those seeds of hate are in all of us and we have to not let them lead us. Every now and then when I think about my mother and I think about all my family, I get very angry, but then I put it in a good place. I know what to do with it now."
And when someone like Garrett reaches out to her, even now after a few years of speaking to groups across the country and at Holocaust museums like the one in St. Louis, Moses said, she feels "a sense of accomplishment because if I can reach the young with the lessons that we should take away from those horrible times, then I can find hope in a world where so much is changing and not a lot of it in a good way."
Garrett admits that Moses' story is "a lot to handle."
"But I want people to know that the same intolerance exists today and that things can happen again. Like last year when Charlie Sheen said he hated Jews, all of that stuff has an impact."
He said he hopes that people who hear Moses speak understand how the Holocaust came from one group discriminating against another "for no real reason, not for who they are, but for something they are and they can't change."
In the simplicity of that lies the danger in repeating history, Moses said.
"We have to begin with ourselves, we have to be people of moral courage who will speak up not just for our own, but be willing to speak up for and cross that line and speak up for those who are different from our own—to speak up for the unpopular. Only then can we have hope for a world of peace and harmony."
Jennifer Liebrum: firstname.lastname@example.org