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Pa. students write book on Holocaust

May 19, 1999

Holocaust bookBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




MERCERSBURG, Pa. - A letter written by a Holocaust survivor to his children has inspired some Mercersburg-area high school students to publish a book of poems, essays and artwork as a tribute to all survivors of the genocidal effort that claimed nearly 12 million lives, half of them Jews, in the 1930s and '40s.

The 64-page book, "A tribute to Survivors," was unveiled at a reception at James Buchanan High School Wednesday night. It was attended by the widow and three children of Egon Gartenberg, who came to America in 1940 and eventually settled in Chambersburg.

Gartenberg became well known in Franklin County as a jeweler - his son continues in the family business today - and for his music. He taught music at Penn State Mont Alto, organized a chorale group at the campus and was instrumental in forming the Chambersburg Symphonette, which he conducted.

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Gartenberg died in 1982 at age 70, said his widow, Belle Gartenberg, 81, of South Coldbrook Avenue in Chambersburg.

"I insisted that Egon write a letter about his life to our three children," she said. "He had never talked about it. They didn't know about the Holocaust."

Her husband wrote the letter in 1967.

Martina Fegan, an English teacher at James Buchanan who also teaches a course on the Holocaust, said she learned of Gartenberg's letter and asked his widow to share it with her students last fall.

The letter inspired the students to learn more about the Holocaust. They read books, visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., saw such movies as "Schindler's List" and "Escape from Sobibor" and began to write poems and essays and do artworks on the subject.

Fegan decided to put their work into a book and found some local corporate sponsors to finance the project. "It was an opportunity for the students to express themselves," she said.

In all, 52 students contributed works to the book. Among them were Domenic Gocella, Tiffany Funk and Rusty Eshleman, all 15 and all freshmen. Gocella and Funk wrote poems, Eshleman wrote an essay.

The students were asked to create their works from different points of view surrounding the Holocaust experience, Fegan said. Some wrote from the perspective of victims, some from perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders and rescuers, she said.

Gocella and Funk wrote poems. In hers, Funk sees the Holocaust as a bystander who ignores the victims' plight.

She writes in part:

"Protected from the feeling the pain the afflicted feel I see I watch With vision, with tears But I have a heart. I can feel. They bleed. I wept. They screamed. I sobbed. The words, Never again! were never recited from my lips."

Gocella's poem, too, is from the perspective of a witness who did nothing to help the victims.

Eshleman's essay tries to capture the fears of the victims.

In the letter to his children, Gartenberg tells of his parents, whose voices he heard for the last time by long-distance telephone call. He was in Holland and they were in Vienna.

He was traveling around Europe trying desperately to leave the continent when he last spoke to them. He saw his brother for the last time from the railing of a steamer the day he left for the Dutch colony of Curacao.

Gartenberg made his way from Curacao to New York, arriving in August 1940. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946, the same year letters arrived from the Dutch Red Cross informing him that his parents had been gassed and cremated at the Sobibor concentration camp in November 1943. He also was informed that his brother had died more than two years earlier at Mauthausen concentration camp.

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