As a 14-year-old boy living in Czechoslovakia, Gerry Friedenfeld was sent by his parents from Prague to England on the "Kindertransport," the clandestine deportation of more than 10,000 Jewish children out of Nazi-held lands. Hear how Friedenfeld made that journey (read the transcript).
In 1950, Friedenfeld emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Milwaukee. Since April he's been a docent at the Milwaukee Public Museum, greeting and talking with thousands of children who have visited Remember the Children: Daniel's Story, a special exhibition now open at the Milwaukee Public Museum. This is Gerry's story.
Gerry Friedenfeld has made Milwaukee Public Museum Communications Manager Shawn Sensiba's job a little easier. "He is tirelessly devoted to letting people know about this exhibition," Sensiba notes with enthusiasm. "He has written letters to various newspapers, extolling this exhibit and saying how proud he is to be associated with it and how he wants to get the word out about it. I'm always glad that Gerry is so attentive and takes so much time at the exhibit, and really takes the time to talk to kids."
A traveling exhibit created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., "Daniel's Story" presents the Holocaust without use of graphic imagery. "The whole point is to introduce the moral issue without frightening people," Sensiba explains. The exhibit is meant to introduce the dilemmas of the Holocaust without looking at graphic physical reproductions and focusing on mounds of bodies." As a consequence, Friedenfeld, whose parents perished in the Holocaust, considers the exhibit too mild. "I understand why," he concedes. "You can't expose children to this. They might have nightmares."
When Friedenfeld greets the exhibit's young visitors, he seeks first to establish a rapport with the children; then he can draw them in and hold their attention. "I greet them with 'Shalom,' and I explain to them that as Jews we say 'Shalom' arriving and leaving, both. So we click right there, 'Shalom, Shalom, Shalom.' And then I tell them, 'What you're going to see in the exhibit is a story, a true story to a point. But now I show you the real thing.' And I pull out this picture of me with my parents and then their eyes water and they all press close, they want to see it. That's the moment I reach them." Adds Sensiba: "Gerry amplifies what they see. In some ways, here's Daniel, 50 years later. That's what makes it real. It becomes reality when he's there."
Having greeted thousands of children and adults who have visited the exhibit, both Friedenfeld and Sensiba recognize an urgent need for Holocaust education. Sensiba reports that "a lot of people have commented that they are not familiar with the term Holocaust; some kids, but also adults have said this. There is definitely a knowledge gap. " Now as fewer and fewer witnesses to the Holocaust remain with us to offer first-hand testimony, Friedenfeld's indefatigable efforts take on special meaning. "I spend two days a week here at the exhibit talking to five, six hundred children each day, as often as I can," he says.
On top of this, the 78-year-old Friedenfeld estimates that since the exhibit opened in April, he has had forty or fifty public speaking engagements. "I invite myself," he says. "I let [educators and program coordinators] know that I'm available."
This was the approach Friedenfeld used in contacting the Museum as well. Less than two weeks before Daniel's Story arrived in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article by staff reporter Jackie Loohauis promoting the exhibit. "A beautiful story," Friedenfeld recalls. "I called her and I complemented her. She gave me information on who to call and I did. And, oh, they welcomed me with open arms. And I welcomed them with open arms."