Though Sam Barriskell is nearly 70 years younger than Lilly Drukker, the 13-year-old was keenly aware that in a different time and place, her story could easily have been his.
Drukker was only 11 when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, and on Sunday, she held Barriskell and an intimate group of his peers rapt at attention as she related the story of her life under Nazi occupation before leaving Vienna and her family for London on a Kindertransport.
Barriskell and Drukker were brought together as part of the Dorothy Freedman Memorial Conversation With a Survivor program. The event, which took place prior to the city's annual Holocaust memorial ceremony, drew about 300 Jewish students (as well as their parents and religious leaders), and turned boardrooms into classrooms in the city's Jewish Community Services Building on Arch Street.
"You are the last generation to hear the survivors' very personal and very moving stories firsthand," said Amy Blum, director for Holocaust awareness at the Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council.
While many people's idea of survival might simply be the idea of making it out of the concentration camps, Blum was quick to remind students that other forms of survival existed, such as hiding in homes or the woods, or posing as a non-Jew.
For her part, Drukker told real-life tales of persecution in Vienna, including being stopped on the street by a child her own age and being asked if she was Jewish, and also of waiting anxiously for news of her father, who had been arrested by the Nazis. Later, with the help of a friend — a prominent Nazi, incidentally — her father was released from Dachau unharmed, but with orders to leave Austria for good.
Barriskell was so moved by Drukker's story that he asked to take a picture with her afterwards.
"It was an odd feeling to know that I could have gone through that if I was there," he said.
His mother, Gail Finn, was also moved by Drukker's story.
"To hear someone like that — who's willing to share their experience — makes it so much more profound," she said, adding that the personal nature of the exchange carried far more relevance than, for example, reading it in a book or watching it on a video.
Conversations such as Drukker's were held in small groups, but the students came together for the keynote address by Leon Bass, a longtime Philadelphia educator who was also a witness to the liberation of Buchenwald.
Remembering the Children …
To cement the experience, after the morning conversation program, many of the students trekked five blocks down to the memorial ceremony on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where they participated in the March of the Children.
Some students also did readings at the ceremony, which included a performance by the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School Stern Center Choir.
The ceremony itself, now in its 45th year, was sparsely attended in comparison with years past, though the thin audience may have had more to do with record-breaking April heat than anything else.
A few hundred people showed up at the ceremony, which included remarks from notables, like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, as well as a keynote address by Sara J. Bloomfield, executive director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Joseph Kahn, a member of the association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors group, offered remarks in Yiddish (a translation was provided in the day's program), in which he remarked that even after 65 years, there is still much more to be said about the Holocaust, in particular about the "Righteous Gentiles," about whom he said not enough has been written.
Kahn also related the moving story of saying goodbye to his family when he was accidentally discovered by ghetto police after hiding in a coal cellar.
The children who perished in the Holocaust, he added, could have grown to be great artists or musicians, or even the next Einsteins, Salks or Freuds, were it not for the Nazis.
The theme of the day was "Holocaust Memory in the 21st Century," and the children's involvement in the program was fitting since it will be up to them to carry on the legacy of the Shoah.
As if to drive the point home, during the children's march, a series of names was read memorializing the more than 1 million youngsters from 24 countries who were murdered by the Nazis.