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5th graders hear personal account of Holocaust history

Fifth-grade students listened silently in the media center at Sawgrass Bay Elementary School recently Teaching holocaust as a familiar school staff member told her personal account of what happened to her family during World War II and, specifically, the Holocaust.


No wiggles. No whispers. Just wide-eyed attention focused on the words of Sheryl Needle Cohn, Ed.D., an author and playwright who works as a teaching assistant at the school.


“All these relatives,” she said, pointing to a black-and-white photo on the screen,”they couldn’t get out, so they were murdered. This area here is where the ashes of my family are. They were marched from their home, forced to dig a ditch, lined up and shot.”


The presentation was to prepare students for their study of the Alan Gratz novel, Prisoner B-3087, about a Jewish boy in the 1930s who is captured by the Nazis. They started reading the book on Monday, April 8.


“The book is based on a true story, and the age of the main character is the current age of our students,’’ said Leslie Maxson, a fifth-grade teacher at Sawgrass, who serves as the team lead. She and the other English Language Arts teachers on the team arranged the presentation as part of the lesson. “Students will learn about history though this book and how determination and hope are important in our lives,” she said.


But first, they learned those lessons from Dr. Cohn, the author of The Boy in the Suitcase, a compilation of nine family stories of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, which she wrote after discovering more about her family history.


“I did not think that I would be a published author one day,” she said. “But upon discovering who the people were in a photograph in a box in the bottom of my grandmother’s closet in Brooklyn, NY, I began my own emotional genealogical journey.”


The journey took Cohn to her ancestral homeland of Dubno, a small village in the former Russian-Polish-Eastern European territories. There, she located the ditch where her relatives had been shot by roving Nazi troops. She returned to America and began telling their story. In return, other families shared theirs. Many of those stories, including the harrowing tale of German parents who escaped to the Dominican Republic by hiding their newborn son in a suitcase, are now in her book.


Dr. Cohn, who in 2008 was selected to study at the International School for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem, said she wants to help students expand their knowledge of this part of history, a subject the state of Florida requires be taught in Social Studies. She recognizes that it can be difficult emotionally for some children to process the material. So, she said, she will mediate the Holocaust photographs and vocabulary with dialogue that explains, teaches and stimulates thinking.


“They should take away an understanding of how cruel prejudice, discrimination, hatred, lies, ignorance and bullying can be,” she said prior to her presentation. “In spite of hardships faced by Jews during the Holocaust, I end each section with the inspirational message, ‘We are still here.’ Due to the bravery of our relatives, we the children, second and third generations, survived and are here to tell the stories. Respect for diversity and respecting the rights of all citizens, regardless of race and religion should be the culminating message.”