By: Megan Roche
A West Morris Central High School teacher is tying history and her students together, all thanks to technology. Kathy Kulfan, a teacher for 21 years, recently connected her students through reading and skype to a woman whose family survived the Holocaust.
Kulfan met Ella Burakowski through an online forum in 2005. The two connected and became friends. As Kulfan followed the journey of the book, from pre-production to post production, she felt inspired to share the story with her students.
Burakowski’s book Hidden Gold was released in 2015. Kulfan’s freshman and sophomore English class read the book and connected with themes and ideas throughout the book. Kulfan noted that her students connected with the book unlike anything she’d ever seen before.
“My students really connected to Ella’s book. They really went on this journey with this family through this book. They were asking so many intriguing questions about the family and what they went through. The kids couldn’t wait to come to class every day and read this book.” Kulfan said.
In Hidden Gold, Burakowski shares the story of her family who lived through the Holocaust. According to the publisher, the Gold family find their peaceful idyllic lives shattered when Nazi Germany invades Poland, setting in motion the events that would come to be known as the Holocaust.
It’s 1942, and the Nazis are rounding up the Jews in the small town of Pińczów for transport to the Treblinka death camp. Leib and Hanna Gold feared this day would come, but thought they had more time to develop an escape plan for their family. When Leib leaves to negotiate a hiding place with local farmers, Hanna and their children, Shoshana, Esther, and twelve-year-old David, steal away in the night to find shelter with a family friend. Leib promises to join them in dawn, but when daylight comes, Leib has vanished. Hanna must flee to a safer refuge or she and her children will perish. The Gold family were in hiding for 26 months before they were liberated.
As the students read the book, Kulfan encouraged them to create questions for Burakowski. She noticed how in depth some of the questions went and knew that this book truly captured their attention.
“It was hard for them to break out of the reading and do the activities that went along with the reading. I had kids coming to me at lunch that wanted to discuss the book, the kids really came out and had thought provoking questions that were really impressive.” Kulfan said.
All of Kulfan’s students were able to communicate with Burakowski throughout their reading of the book. In email exchanges with Burakowski, Isabelle, a student in Kulfan’s class, was quick to let Burakowski know what the book meant to her.
“I loved your fantastic book. It is now one of my favorite books. It’s so fascinating to find out what someone actually went through, which gives me a better understanding of what Jewish families went through during the Holocaust.” Isabelle said.
Faith, another student in Kulfan’s class, found that the book really resonated with her. She connected with the theme of hatred that the Jews suffered from and what it must have felt like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany.
“This book painted a clear picture of how millions of people suffered through that time period. It helped me realize how terrible it was for the people involved in the Holocaust.” Faith expressed.
Through Burakowski’s story, even Ella was able to learn more about herself. According to Burakowski, she is an auditory learner. As an auditory learner, she found reading to be a chore. With reading being a chore, how does one even think about writing a book?
“I didn’t know if I liked the book until I heard it read back to me. I’m a very slow reader, so reading books is a chore for me. Thank goodness that books are available in audio format, because I love listening to them.” Burakowski wrote.
One of Kulfan’s students, Louis, was interested in the physical writing of the book. Of interest, Louis, a sophomore, asked the age old question, “How did your family feel about the book?”
“My family is very proud of me for having written our family’s story. But more importantly, you are reading it and keeping their memory alive. It makes their suffering have meaning, because if you learn anything about hate, love, perseverance and the human spirit, then writing Hidden Gold and the history of the Holocaust will live on through people like you, who will speak up and never allow atrocities like this to happen again.”
After finding some interesting biographical information on Burakowski’s family in a video on Facebook, the two connected on setting up a date to skype with the author, putting the plans in motion for her students to meet and speak with a real life author.
Matt, a student in Kulfan’s class, has a very big passion for the subject of history. For him, the pleasure of being able to speak to the author and learn about World War II history really tied things together.
“Through reading Hidden Gold, I am able to learn more about the Holocaust and excited to talk to Ella, the actual author.” Matt said.
For some students, they were able to tie the lessons from Hidden Gold to their personal lives. Liv, a freshman, was really interested in the details about the war because of her grandfather who served in the military during World War II.
“I feel really special that I am able to gain information about the book from the actual author. I was really intrigued with the details about the war because my grandfather on my dad’s side was in World War II. It has changed me personally by my thoughts on the Holocaust.” Liv said.
On June 6, students in Kulfan’s class were able to meet and speak with Burakowski after the two arranged a skype session. Burakowski lives in Ontario, Canada and was delighted to help Kulfan link her students learning to a real-life story.
“I just wanted to help keep the Holocaust alive, that’s all. I want to do my part to keep the Holocaust alive. There’s hardly anyone left and those who are still alive are in their 90s. I wanted to write this book for a younger audience, and it keeps kids interested in the real story of the Holocaust.” Burakowski said.
Plans are also underway for the students to meet Burakowski personally when she travels to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in the fall. Kulfan feels that this story has truly impacted her students.
“My kids really got a personal view of this family from someone who was involved. These kids were so invested in the story and all the life lessons that it taught them. They had these little pieces of information from the personal connection that took this to a completely different level.” Kulfan said.