The Promise: Why My First-grade Teacher Insisted on Teaching Us About the Holocaust

Decades after Helen Rosenblatt, who passed away on September 2, caught flack for the 'unacceptable’ transgression of teaching about the Holocaust, I found out about her own Holocaust trauma.

Mordechai I. Twersky
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Helen Rosenblatt, at the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, NY, where she taught Hebrew - and about the Holocaust - to first-graders for 21 years.Credit: Courtesy
Mordechai I. Twersky

This essay was originally published on September 23, 2013. Ms. Rosenblatt passed away on September 2, 2014.

I hadn't anticipated I’d ever again encounter my first-grade Hebrew teacher.

Helen Rosenblatt, who held sway over a generation of youngsters at Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, N.Y. during the 1960s and 70s, was the stuff of legends.

From her classroom with the picture window overlooking the Long Island Sound, the elegantly dressed woman with wind-swept hair taught her students to read, to write, to sing and to pray.

"Don't be afraid," Rosenblatt said in a distinctive accent that channeled that of my parents' when I entered her classroom sobbing on my first day of first-grade in September 1969. "I will take care of you." I believed her. I was clay in her wrinkled, but soothing hands.

Despite the special touch she had with students, Rosenblatt caught flack for what some considered an unacceptable transgression: Teaching those youngsters about the Holocaust.

I vividly recall the day that Rosenblatt held up a children's book illustration depicting parents and children being herded onto boxcars. I remember being sad, though not frightened. Others — including my own siblings, I would later learn — suffered from nightmares, prompting complaints from some parents.

The last time I saw Rosenblatt in person was in 1981, at a school reception marking her retirement. Even as a teenager, I appreciated my former teacher, both as an educator and a person. A chance encounter of a different kind, however, made me value her even more.

During a recent visit to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem, I noticed Rosenblatt's name in a database of survivors. Within minutes, I was queuing catalog number 7238 for the recording of an interview Rosenblatt granted the USC Shoah Foundation in 1995.

Rosenblatt emerged, looking exactly as I’d remembered her. I was transfixed as the former Hela Diament told a chilling tale of anti-Semitism, beginning with being stoned as a child in her Polish hometown of Czestochowa.

"It was a nest of anti-Semitism," said Rosenblatt, who recalled that the Jewish community — which numbered 28,000 before the war and 2,100 after, according to Yad Vashem — would "close the gates" for fear of pogroms by pilgrims descending from the city's famed Jasna Góra Monastery.

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Mordechai recently discovered Helen Rosenblatt's 1995 USC Shoah Foundation testimony in a survivor database at Yad Vashem.Credit: USC Shoah Foundation
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Rosenblatt at school: She retired in 1981 at the age of 69. She marked her 101st birthday in July 2013 in Riverdale, NY.Credit: Rosenblatt and Diament family
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Mrs. Rosenblatt, at the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, NY, where she taught Hebrew -- and about the Holocaust -- to first-graders for 21 years. Credit: Rosenblatt and Diament Family

In 1935, after graduating from the prestigious University of Cracow, where Rosenblatt was subjected to racism and restrictions, she was teaching in Czestochowa and awaiting word on her doctoral dissertation when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

It took the Germans two days to reach Czestochowa. They began confiscating Jewish property. In 1941, much of the city was converted into a ghetto.

Rosenblatt laid out a narrative of death, disease and deportation that spared neither her parents nor her first husband, who was deported to Buchenwald a week after they wed in 1943, the year the Czestochowa ghetto was liquidated.

Rosenblatt’s eyes welled up with tears as she described a surgery she underwent after a German officer shot her in the leg. The ghetto infirmary had no anesthesia.

She cried as she spoke of selections in the city market; babies’ heads were crashed against a wall, Jews murdered in what was once the butcher shop. A finger-flicking German officer decided who would be sent to work, who to their death.

"Do I look young enough?" Rosenblatt remembered her doomed father asking in their final moments together, trying to pinch color into his cheeks.

She remained defiant. "Working for our oppressors didn't kill my soul and my faith," said Rosenblatt. "If I had to die I wanted to die with honor.” She joined the underground, preparing Molotov cocktails and smuggling guns, “because there was no tomorrow.”

Rosenblatt was sent to a slave labor camp, where she slept on bare plywood barracks. Infested with lice and starving, she contracted typhus.

"We turned into animals. The only primitive instinct was to survive," she said.

Still, Rosenblatt refused to speak German to her superior officer, knowing she’d be whipped as punishment. "I, in my pride, could not dare."

After the Russians liberated the camp in 1945, Rosenblatt helped establish a Jewish high school at the Zelsheim DP Camp in Frankfurt. There she met a childhood friend whom she would later marry.

In late 1948 she boarded an Israel-bound fishing boat in France. Upon her arrival six harrowing weeks later, she learned she was pregnant with her first and only child. "I was so thankful," Rosenblatt said. "Every effort, every pain, every suffering was worth it."

She returned to the classroom in Israel's central city of Holon, an emotionally trying experience after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust. “I was afraid … I will have no more love for children,” she said.

But her fears were unfounded. In 1958, Rosenblatt emigrated to the United States and soon began teaching at Westchester Day School.

She concluded her interview by explaining why she was telling her story. Her remarks seemed at least partially aimed at those who criticized her decision to teach about the Holocaust to her students.

"One, I am a witness to those atrocities. Two, I am an educator; a teacher's role is to bring this historical knowledge to the young generation. Three, in my silent prayers for survival, I made a silent promise — a neder, in Hebrew — dedicated to the memory of my dear parents: that I will talk about their pain and suffering. I keep this holy promise."

Emotionally spent from this unexpected video encounter, I jotted down the names of Rosenblatt's next of kin. I wanted them to know how much their mother meant to me.

"You could tell her yourself," her 64 year-old son Steven suggested as I reacted with stunned silence.

From my home in Israel I reached out to Rosenblatt, who still lives in Riverdale, NY and turned 101 in July. "She would be delighted to see you," her aide wrote to me last month, but noted that she cannot communicate much.

For this former student, she has already spoken. Her words resonate, particularly during this month, as we begin the 75th year since the invasion of Czestochowa, the 53rd year since Mrs. Rosenblatt began teaching at Westchester Day School, and the 45th year since I entered her classroom.

Her legacy, and the meaning of September, is forever recast.

Mordechai I. Twersky is a journalist and freelance writer living in Israel.