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Wide Awake: A Necessary Lesson
A local author shares her Holocaust tale

Over the years, I’ve had different opportunities to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust. I’ve published survivor stories on these pages, and made sure my children understood the devastation that occurred. It may be, though, that I received the most poignant lesson when I met Rhonda Fink-Whitman.

Last fall, I was asked to moderate a panel of local authors for the Katz JCC Festival of Arts, Books and Culture, and Rhonda was one of those authors. Her book, “94 Maidens,” chronicles her travels to Germany to discover exactly what happened to her grandparents and her mother during the Holocaust. The format of the book is unique – it switches from Rhonda’s present-day travels with her husband and 17-year-old son to the long-ago horrors her family experienced during the Holocaust, written in real-time. She tells a gripping, emotional tale. I read the book because I needed to prepare for the panel, but I had no idea the story would move me so.

I was eager to meet Rhonda in person, because I wanted to talk with this woman who was able to share such an intimate, difficult journey. There were times while reading when I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes, like when she walked along the train tracks her grandfather rode on his way to the gas chambers. Many times I closed the book and put it down, because it was too much to keep reading. It struck me that I needed a break – and I was sitting in my home. Rhonda was there, in another country, recreating those same experiences. She visited seven concentration camps in 13 days. I admired her strength.

One of the first questions I asked her was how she did it – how did she set out day after day to see these atrocities firsthand? She said her husband and son would return from their days out and fall into bed, but she rarely slept. She spent most of her free time writing ferociously in her journal, which led to the book.

After our interview, I sat next to her as she took questions from the audience. I watched her passionately explain her story, and sometimes fight back tears as people expressed kindness and understanding. She spoke with fervor about her latest quest: trying to convince Pennsylvania legislators to make Holocaust education mandatory in public schools. She’s asking for one hour of Holocaust education a month, and is having a hard time getting it passed. (Good news: New Jersey is one of five states in the country that requires Holocaust education in public schools.)

To make her argument, Rhonda went to college campuses in Philly – Drexel, Temple, Univ. of Penn – and made a video. She asked students simple questions about the Holocaust: What was it? Where did it take place? What country did Hitler rule? They didn’t know. And they were embarrassed.

Rhonda was quick to defend the students. It wasn’t her intention to embarrass them, she said. Her beef is with the schools that never taught them. Her bigger beef is with the lawmakers who don’t seem to care. The audience – and me – were astounded she was having such difficulty getting this legislation passed.

But like many people who have an internal passion to fight for what they believe is right, Rhonda is moving forward – collecting signatures, calling politicians and talking to whoever she can. She has all the inspiration and motivation she needs. She’s heard her mother recount her childhood memories, and now she’s walked in her grandfather’s footsteps. Her book is a great read. But her life’s work is even better.

January 2015
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