Pictured from L to R: Stephen Rosenthal, NA, Kathleen Donahue, Richard Kiesel, Steve Hunegs, Father Steve Huffstetter, and Ken Engel
A relationship can begin with a simple Google search. In this case, Richard Kiesel of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, was looking to further his Holocaust educational effort for his school, a boarding school internationally recognized – for Lakota Native American children. He contacted the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). JCRC staff provided him the JCRC’s Holocaust Family Survivor Educational Kits. Mr. Kiesel is deeply grateful for this original educational curriculum supplementing his own teaching of the Anne Frank story and play.
Ken Engel, a second generation survivor whose parents were Czech Holocaust survivors, and I traveled to Chamberlain which is about 150 miles west of Sioux Falls along Interstate 90. Our first destination was St. Joseph’s where we had been asked to address the students.
By way of background, St. Joseph’s is a school of 220 students living away from home often from different circumstances. The grounds are beautiful and nearby the Missouri River at a place where the river is about a mile wide. (In North Dakota and South Dakota, it is said that the West begins west of the Missouri River. Our JCRC straddles the upper Midwest and West.) The school is operated by the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. Mr. Kiesel wanted a discussion of the Shoah (Holocaust) via a survivor’s account of his/her experiences in World War II in light of occasional tensions between white and Native American students in the community.
We presented against a backdrop of a school where Mr. Kiesel has placed on the walls of the school near his classroom and on his classroom walls: children’s peers from Theresienstadt; reflections upon Anne Frank; the famous Martin Niemöller epigram, “First They Came…”; and the four timelines from each of the Holocaust Family Survivor Educational Kits. This for a school with no Jewish students, no Jewish teachers and a community with no Jewish residents.
Ken Engel spoke beautifully and eloquently to a school assembly and to a community gathering Thursday evening at the school’s Catholic Church. Michael Engel, z’l’, who passed away five months ago was a central portion of Ken’s presentation. One vignette which captured the students in the afternoon and the community in the evening was the story of Michael and Celia Engel arriving in the United States via New York City on St. Patrick’s Day, 1947. There he saw people wearing Shamrock buttons which totally concerned him thinking they represented a mysterious military order. Assured it was an Irish celebration, Michael Engel decided that his arrival in the United States was his rebirth after the tribulations of the Shoah. Thereafter, Michael wore a Shamrock button on each St. Patrick’s Day despite some puzzled looks and questions from Jewish friends.
The children of the school – ages 8 to 14 – asked some perceptive and brutally honest questions:
1. Was it difficult growing up with parents who survived the Holocaust?
2. Did your Mom ever tell you what it was like to see her sister in a pile of the dead?
3. When did your parents first discuss the Holocaust with you?
4. What do you [Ken] think of Hitler?
5. Is your wife Jewish?
6. Do you tell your children about the Holocaust?
7. How did your father describe his liberation from the camps?
8. Did you [Ken] bring a picture of your parents?
In the evening, we spoke at the church of St. Joseph’s to a group of more than 100 people from Chamberlain, including its Mayor, Doug Nelson. The church has a beautiful interior with a fusion of Catholic and Lakota religious traditions. Among the elements of this fusion is Mary and the baby Jesus represented by a Lakota woman in traditional dress holding a Lakota infant in traditional dress. More interesting questions were asked by members of the community, including:
1. When did Michael (Ken’s father) discover his sisters were alive?
2. What happened to the family of Ken’s mother?
3. What do we do about Holocaust denial when it is perpetuated protected by a country’s president?
4. Did Ken’s parents have tattoos from the camps?
5. Are the experiences of the Jews in the Holocaust parallel to experiences of North American Native Americans?
6. What became of the family’s property in Czechoslovakia?
I wish the Muslim community a Ramadan Mubarak and the Jewish community a Shana Tovah!