The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale became home to a twelve-panel exhibit on the Holocaust last week.
Compiled in large part by undergraduate researchers at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., “Through the Eyes of Youth: Life and Death in the Bedzin Ghetto” follows the stories of six young people in the city of Bedzin, Poland during the German occupation. The Riverdale showing was the exhibit’s first on the East coast.
The exhibit was curated by Bjorn Krondorfer, Ph.D., director of the Martin-Springer Institute and professor at Northern Arizona University. It opened at Northern Arizona in 2014 after a year and a half of work.
“The original impetus was that the founder of the institute, that I’m now director of, is from this town. She was born there,” Krondorfer said. “That was the original idea… to honor her and her family.”
Bedzin (pronounced “bengine”) is a city in southwest Poland, located about an hour’s drive from the German border. It was among the first cities to fall when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, with the Nazis seizing control of Bedzin on September 4, just three days after the invasion began.
By September 9, Bedzin’s synagogue was burned to the ground.
As the war progressed, the Nazis began to concentrate Jews in Kamionka, forming a Jewish ghetto outside of Bedzin. By 1941, not a single Jew remained in Bedzin proper.
Many of the Jews in Bedzin’s ghetto would ultimately be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi’s largest extermination camp, located less than thirty miles to the southeast in the Polish city of Oswiciem.
Some of the young people followed by the exhibit went on to recount their stories, including Sam Pivnik, author of “Survivor,” and Ella Liebermann-Shiber, who recounted her experience in illustrations and paintings.
Excerpts from “Survivor” and illustrations by Liebermann-Shiber were included in the exhibit.
Before the war broke out, Bedzin was a city of roughly 50,000, with a nearly even split between Jews and Catholics. Since the war, Bedzin’s Jewish population has been reduced to a footnote, with many survivors opting to relocate to other countries, like Israel or the United States.
Through Krondorfer’s work, Riverdale resident Rick Feldman learned of his roots in Bedzin.
“This grew out of a meeting that Holocaust Genocide Interfaith Center was running years ago on the Abrahamic religions and, kind of, extremism,” Feldman said. “Here, at Manhattan College, at a meeting on extremism, I’m learning about the remnants of my family in Flagstaff, Arizona, coming from Bedzin, Poland.”
“As a teacher myself, I have to say […] ‘Well, you know, we have to bring this story to Riverdale,” Feldman said.
Feldman, Krondorfer and Mehnaz Afridi, Ph.D., associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, then opened a line of communication.
“The [Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith] Center sponsored [Krondorfer’s] travel, his coming here, his staying here and educating the people that were there,” Afridi said.
“Our role, again, is to walk young people, and people from the community through a story, and to show them exactly what happened in the ghetto,” Afridi said.
For more information on the exhibit, visit bedzinexhibit.org
Lauren Schuster contributed reporting.