In “Letters from Rifka,” a Jewish teen and her family flee their oppressive Russian homeland in 1919, enduring separation, hunger, disease and cruelty during their transatlantic escape to America.
While discussing the novel with her eighth-grade literature students at St. Rita School in New Orleans, Marianite Sister Annette Baxley decided to bring the era alive by bringing in a little “show-and-tell”: records detailing her own Russian grandparents’ voyage from England to Philadelphia in 1908.
“They came for a better life. Most of (my grandparents’) relatives were killed in the Russian Revolution afterwards,” said Sister Annette, pointing to dates showing that her grandparents’ passage took 12 days. The 11-month-old baby who traveled with them – Sister Annette’s Aunt Christine – died of typhoid shortly after arriving in the United States, Sister Annette said.
“Their goal was (to settle in) Topeka, Kansas, because my grandmother’s brother was there,” she explained, noting that the family eventually settled in Colorado, where Sister Annette was born.
Although the plotline of “Letters from Rifka” pre-dates World War II, the novel’s depiction of politically unstable Europe launched the St. Rita eighth graders’ five-week literature unit on the Holocaust. The class will also read “Letters from Daniel, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a play on Frank’s life, and see videos of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland. A class visit to the Holocaust exhibit at the National World War II Museum will reveal even more about the genocidal killing of 6 million Jews and other groups by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
“The Holocaust should never be forgotten,” said Sister Annette,” who also serves as St. Rita’s principal.
Sister Annette saw effects of the Holocaust firsthand after moving to Munich, Germany, with her Air Force family in 1946. She vividly recalls the rationing of food, water and electricity, and collecting food and clothing for “DPs”– the “displaced persons” living in Munich’s tent cities. Many of these DPs were the emaciated survivors of Nazi concentration camps.
“We would bring them food and other supplies. They were like skeletons, due to malnutrition,” said Sister Annette, who recalls seeing the hungry digging in landfills for scraps of food.
In addition to building a large library of Holocaust-related literature, St. Rita probes the Holocaust in seventh-grade social studies. Last spring, the parish and school sent a contingent of four students to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to deliver paper stars as a show of their school’s solidarity with Jews and other groups who suffered atrocities during World War II.
After the Holocaust unit, the Sister Annette’s class will study slavery through the lens of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. The principal noted the many similarities between the Holocaust and slavery in America: Both were based on the belief that certain groups of people are of lesser value than others; both broke up families and caused lasting effects for generations; both were “vessels of evil”; and both included people who resisted the status quo and brought about change, by hiding Jews and slaves.
“Both had people who were full of hope, faith, compassion and courage,” Sister Annette said. “Many African-American children and their families still deal with non-acceptance and prejudice. We believe that understanding history and studying about those who rose above their situation will give our students courage.”
St. Rita eighth grader Janeva Morris said she was so riveted by Rifka’s story, she read the book in one day.
“It was dangerous in Russia back then, and a lot of people were trying to get here because we have a free country,” Janeva said, recalling the scene where Rifka loses her hair to ringworm. “I probably would have given up,” Janeva said. “That’s why I admire (Rifka). She stayed strong. She was alone for at least two years.”
Brodrick Bazanac admits he was hesitant to read the novel because of the violent period of history in which it is set.
“The Holocaust is a very emotional subject because a lot of innocent people died over nothing,” Brodrick said. “The story took place before World War II, but it gave me a better view and understanding of World War II.”