Rivers Honors Holocaust Remembrance Day with Stories of Survival

In ongoing observance of Jewish-American heritage month in April, Rivers offered a reflection for Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, in an all-school assembly featuring guest speaker and former Rivers faculty Carol Davidson P ’02. Yom Hashoah is officially observed this year beginning at sundown on April 17 and ending with sundown on April 18, and compels us to remember the truth of the Holocaust through the stories of those who lived and perished.
Even as more time continues to pass from the events of the Holocaust, this message remains timely especially in the context of recent reports that show that antisemitism is on the rise across the country. 

Student leaders Anna Rosenfeld ‘23 and Brooke Brennan ’23, the leaders of Jewish affinity, introduced Ms. Davidson, who taught at Rivers for more than 25 years and whose parents, Madeleine Witzenhausen (1924-2012) and Karl Weiss (1926-2021), were both Holocaust survivors. 

“We are lucky that family members of Holocaust survivors have become storytellers, to ensure that their stories live on,” said Brooke, addressing the audience.

For Ms. Davidson, those stories are deeply personal and inextricably tied to her own existence, and that of her family. Ms. Davidson taught at Rivers for over 25 years in a number of roles, including as director of academic counseling and viola instructor, starting knitting club for students and adults in the community, and chaperoning the first language and music trip to London and France. In addition to her work in these roles, Ms. Davidson developed an elective on the Holocaust, and her parents, Madeleine Witzenhausen and Karl Weiss, were invited to speak to her classes in person about their experiences while they were still alive.

The story of these two individuals is remarkable and miraculous. Madeleine and Karl, both born in different parts of Germany in the 1920s, each escaped the Holocaust in different ways. Madeleine’s family, with incredible luck, escaped to Belgium and survived. Leaving his family behind, Karl was able to find refuge with a foster family in England. Each found their way to the United States and met each other in New York over Kaffee und Kuchen (the German tradition of coffee and cake.) Ms. Davidson is the first member of her family born in the United States.

Ms. Davidson framed her family’s narratives in the context of the pivotal world events that were unfolding all around her mother and father in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Directly engaging the students in the room, Ms. Davidson asked for guesses on how many Jews were living in Germany in 1933. At the time, Jews accounted for less than 1%, 525,000 people out of a total 65 million living in Germany. However, in all of Nazi-occupied Europe, there were estimated to be approximately 11 million Jews, 6 million of whom were murdered by the Nazis, a figure which includes 1.5 million children. 

Delving into the survival stories of each of her parents, Ms. Davidson stressed the point that their survival depended very much on luck. Madeleine’s father’s fluency in French allowed them to escape to Belgium from Frankfurt with only a small number of possessions, and go under the radar as a non-Belgian Jew in Nazi-occupied Europe. With the Gestapo cracking down on exterminating all Jews from Europe, Madeleine’s father secured the family false ids under pseudonyms. When Madeleine was called to report for labor in 1942 (an assignment from which no one ever returned,) her father arranged for her to stay at the hospital in Brussels for three months, pretending to be sick. Brussels was liberated in 1944.

Ms. Davidson’s father, Karl Weiss, originally from Hamburg, was able to get on a Kindertransport to Dovercourt in England before being placed with a family in Biddingham with two other refugee children. While in England, Karl adopted the pseudonym of Larry and earned top prizes in chemistry and math. He and one cousin were the only surviving members of their family; his father was sent away to Belzec where he was murdered with many others.

In these narratives, we hear one family’s story, but there are many more stories that are no longer remembered, where no survivors remain to tell the tale. Offered Brooke Brennan ’23, “Holocaust Remembrance Day exists to remember the truth of the holocaust: its horrors, but also the stories of the people who both perished and survived. We hope you will hear…a responsibility to learn the full history of the Holocaust and the call to stand up against hate wherever you encounter it.”

Concluding the assembly, Ms. Davidson showed a final slide — a photo of a family reunion from 2010 with many children and grandchildren, including her two parents. On occasion, when her mother Madeleine would visit her class at Rivers to speak, she would show the picture.

“Hitler tried to kill us," she would tell the class, "but he didn’t succeed.”
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