Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

A Positive Light in a Dark Time: From Auschwitz to Philadelphia

Contest poster. Photo is the property of Stephen Stern

Co-written with Gettysburg College Jewish Studies Professor Steve Gimbel, author of ‘Einstein’s Jewish Science, finalist for the US National Jewish Book award in 2012.

Walking out of class, a student asked me why I ask them questions whose answers I do not know. I will ask, for example, “What is Justice?” and only tell them that I do not have a correct response in mind. But that lack of direction from me is the point. I don’t specifically know where the discussion will go. My job is not to indoctrinate, but rather to create an environment where engaged, thoughtful discussion may take place, perhaps leading to insights we can collectively discover. I told the student, “My approach is stochastic. I create the context in which we learn, but not your conclusions.”

I explained “stochastic” this way: candy placement in grocery stores makes it likely to be picked up by a child. The placement does not make a child buy the candy, but instead sets up a situation in which candy will likely be picked up by some children, just as I can’t predict when and what conclusions you may draw in class, but I can set up an environment in which you’re likely to draw conclusions. Learning is not passive reception of information, but the creative synthesis of thought processes and the insertion of some randomness into the process will shake loose wisdom that needed contributions from all of us together. Sometimes you need to make unexpected connections to build something new.

Indeed, creating discussion in this way allows for connections to be made and revealed that we never imagined. Christian psychologist C.G. Jung calls this occurrence “synchronicity,” directing us to we keep our eyes open for events where the universe peels back the veil behind which it hides and shows to us deep interrelations among us that we could never have guessed and would hardly believe actually exist. When they show up, they should be treasured. They’re magical moments.

We, Stephen Stern (Stephen) and Steve Gimbel (Steve) have shared such a magical, stochastic Jewish and non-Jewish moment below. It is about two teenagers from different historical worlds, Georges Lieber who was murdered at Auschwitz at 16 and Emma Oyakhire of Villanova, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, a 17 year old high school student resisting hate. This is a fascinating story, most easily told in chapters.

Chapter 1: Saving Georges

Emma won the Third Annual Georges Lieber Essay Contest on Resistance. The existence of this contest is itself an amazing story. Georges was a budding young man who lived in Nazi occupied Europe. At 16, he was caught as a member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Georges had taken his life in his hands to resist hatred and fascism. He and his family were murdered at Auschwitz.

Georges had a younger cousin whom he treated like a “little brother” as Georges boasted his youthful tales. Right after Georges had been taken, the “little brother” was able to escape, finding his way to a one-room apartment in New York City because of his mother’s ability to get him and his sister out of Paris. He made a wonderful life for himself, becoming a professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University and having a family with smart, strong children who themselves are incomprehensibly successful… one is a member of the Gettysburg College Jewish Studies Committee at Gettysburg College.

When his time came to pass, his daughter sat with him, and he told her tearfully of Georges, a beloved relative she was only hearing of for the first time in her life.

For Jews, when someone we love passes away, the kindest thing one can say to those mourning is that you should make a blessed memory of the loved one. We live beyond ourselves in the world through the bettering of the world of the living by way of the memory of the passed. Georges was one mind away from having his memory erased completely from reality. Without that one deathbed human utterance of someone who loved him, Georges would no longer have existed. But he did say it and she did hear it.

She told Stephen of this. It sparked a fiery passion of moral necessity to make sure Georges would have a blessed memory. With the daughter, the researchers at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. were engaged and something of the facts of Georges’ life were able to be reconstructed. Georges had been factually found. That act saved the memory…now, it had to be blessed.

There is a longstanding essay contest for college students run by the Elie Wiesel Foundation. Stephen decided that since Georges was of high school age, a new contest ought to be created based on Georges’ story, focused on the theme of resistance for high school students. But how?

Chapter 2: Sweet Juice of Bad Fruit

Edwin T. Johnson grew up in the Philadelphia, a child of a Presbyterian family. Stephen and Steve had the privilege to know him. He had a good heart and a smart head. He attended Gettysburg College in the 1950’s and then went on to create an insurance business that he ran ethically and successfully, becoming wealthy and fostering an environment of discussion. Furthermore, he was what us Jews call “a real Mensch.”

But he had a spot on his soul that bothered him. As a child, he ran with the neighborhood boys and there was a nerdy Jewish kid in the neighborhood and the group of boys bullied him. It always bothered him that he had not stopped it or walked away. It was a typical failure of moral strength that all of us are liable too, especially as kids when we are trying to fit in and figure out who we are. But to Ed, it was a sin he carried with him, and he wanted to do something about it.

As a successful alum of Gettysburg College, he made a substantial donation with the express purpose of starting the Jewish Studies program at a historically Lutheran college with a focus on fighting Jew-hatred and the absence Jewish civilization in our curriculum. The purpose of the program, Stephen explained to Ed when discussing the gift, was not to teach Jews about Judaism, but to teach non-Jews about Judaism/Jewish civilization so that we would further understanding and connection and stop future instances of division and hatred.

As chair of the program, Stephen realized that it was perfectly in Ed’s vision to use part of that endowment for exactly this contest. It may seem odd for an essay focused on resistance to get a Jewish prize when the writer isn’t Jewish and the essay may have little to do with Jews and Judaism, but hopefully this explanation makes clear that Emma is exactly the sort of person who has been in mind the whole time.

And, to stop for a second, we now have a straight line connecting Emma to Georges. His cousin’s telling of the story to his daughter and Stephen’s engagement of the Holocaust scholars and Ed’s founding of Jewish Studies combined to save Georges’ memory. Emma’s winning essay, and anything she does from here on out to improve the world in any minor way, now serves to make Georges’ a blessed memory.

But there is more…

Chapter 3: Brothers

Steve is a philosopher of physics who is a secular Jew. None of his research had ever focused on Judaism or Jewishness. Stephen is a Jewish philosopher whose work often focuses on Jewish intellectual traditions. When Stephen was trying to start the Jewish Studies Program, Steve rebuffed him. He had enough to do, and it was not his area.

But then one day, Stephen walked into Steve’s office and made a statement about ethics. Steve connected it to Einstein and next thing you know, they wrote an article together…and then another article, and then another article, and soon a book that is coming out. Steve’s research trajectory now has an unexpectedly robust Jewish element to it, a sheer accident of colleagues of Jewish background playing with ideas.

Our cognitive strengths (and weaknesses) complement each other and, over the years, we have had personal occasions to care for each other in times of need. Now, we are like brothers. This may or should not have much of a connection to Emma’s essay, but because of these other seemingly completely external factors, it too is connected.

Chapter 4: Emma’s speech

Emma committed a brave act of resistance, standing up and addressing her school community about actual issues of real oppression in the real lives of real people. She used her voice to bring the suffering of those in the shadows out into the light so that those around her who profess a commitment to moral principles would have to face the reality of the situation.

That act of moral courage caught the eye of one of Emma’s teachers,  Ms. Norma De Crema, who teaches religion at the Catholic school Emma attends. When the decision was being made who ought to write a Georges Lieber essay, Emma’s ethical core spoke to her worthiness. Emma did not give that talk to secure the chance to write the essay, (she didn’t know about the contest until after she gave the talk), much less with self-congratulatory dreams of winning this contest. She just did something she thought was right for the sake of doing right and this was an accidental ramification that arose because of who Emma is, who Ms. De Crema is, and the accidental fact that the two of you happen to have been at the same place at the same time.

Who Emma is, of course, is a small part of who Ms. De Crema is. That is one of the magical gifts given to teachers. Emma and Ms. De Crema alone live their Iives, have their own experiences, and feel their own feelings. But we are connected. We carry along with us traces of our mentors, friends, and families. The heroes we choose and the narratives we love shape us in who we are. We are ourselves, but we are interconnected and that interconnectedness is essential to be empathetic and moral.

And when we surround ourselves with moral, thoughtful, caring people, like Ms. De Crema, the more we make them a part of ourselves like them and the more we become connected.

Chapter 5: Wait…what?

It may strike the reader as odd that some random guys are speaking about the moral character of Emma’s beloved teacher. You see, Emma’s teacher used to be a student. We know that is not the deepest thing anyone has ever said. Of course, a teacher had to have gone to school herself earlier in life. But to Emma and nearly everyone else, this is a mere logical truth. To Steve, it is an experiential one. Norma sat just a few uncomfortable 1980s plastic classroom desk chairs down the row from Steve for years. When they were younger than Emma, they were fortunate to be a part of a group of young people who thought, argued, wrestled with in-depth questions of humanity. Questions like “What is justice?” Steve knows Norma because each other and the same wonderful group of teachers, mentors, and friends they share shaped them.

That Emma is today being shaped by Norma not only warms our heart, but today extends the bizarre mutuality of influences even farther with more accidental formative connections. Steve and Norma had not spoken to each other since high school. Steve did not know Ms, De Crema had tapped Emma to represent the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova, Pa. in the Third Annual Georges Lieber Essay Contest on Resistance. We blindly evaluate the hundreds of entries after mailing the contest poster to 1,100 high schools. Steve had no idea Norma was part of this. He had no idea she was a teacher.

Stephen writes the five winners—some winning essays are too personal to publicly advertise—and asks them to email him their favorite teacher; he cc’s the committee when writing each student. Emma hit reply all and noted Ms. De Crema. Steve went to the moon and back when he saw her name. If Emma had only tapped reply instead of reply all, we would not be writing this.

So, what Emma has done in writing a wonderful essay that won the contest is itself a remarkable act in isolation. A strong, moral young woman is caring about the vulnerable and seeking to make the world better. We need that sort of story more often. But it turns out that the fuller picture is so much more. It is magical. From Georges to Ed to Stephen to Steve to Ms. De Crema to Emma… what Emma did in writing that essay was to cement forever the interconnection among us.

This does not mean we are pressuring Emma to do anything, that if we do not someday elect President Emma we will be disappointed. To the contrary, it ought to be forever a source of strength for Emma to know that her connections are always with her, if she wants to think of us. All of us together will be a blessed memory because of what Emma has and no doubt will continue to do. We could not be more joyful or proud to be connected to Emma Oyakhire and everyone else in this amazing story.

And that is why I will forever continue to ask question I do not know the answers to…because sometimes, not often, but on rare occasions, I find answers, and they are answers I could never have dreamed are this wonderful.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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