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Amherst project will help students learn of Jewish-Christian solidarity in post-WWII Connecticut town

  • The 1951 groundbreaking ceremony for Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, Connecticut. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • The 1951 groundbreaking ceremony for Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, Connecticut. About 50 Holocaust survivors arrived in Danielson in the early 1950s after the Jewish Agricultural Society, based in New York City, looked to place the new immigrants in towns in New England where they could settle on small farms. SUBMITTED PHOTOS

  • Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, Connecticut. The temple was built with the help of Jewish and Christian members of the community. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Simon Leutz, a social studies teacher at Amherst Regional High School, teaches a senior elective on the Holocaust. He’s developing a teachers guide using the story of the Jewish temple in Danielson, Connecticut in schools in Amherst and elsewhere in the state. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Simon Leutz, a social studies teacher at Amherst Regional High School, teaches a senior elective on the Holocaust. He’s developing a teachers guide for using the story of the Jewish temple in Danielson, Connecticut in schools in Amherst and elsewhere in the state.     STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 2020

It’s a story that’s so big, and so brutal, that it’s hard to keep it in perspective: the Holocaust.

But a new project in Amherst aims to tell a more positive side of the murder of well over 6 million people in Europe during World War II: how a small, Christian town in Connecticut welcomed Holocaust survivors after the war and built lasting ties to the newcomers.

That story has been told in part through a 35-minute video that Amherst Media put together in the last few years through interviews with Holocaust survivors and their children from the small town of Danielson in northeast Connecticut.

Now the founder of that project and Amherst Media have received an $11,250 grant from Mass Humanities to use the video as the basis for a teachers guide and curriculum for high school and middle school students across the state.

Jim Lescault, executive director of Amherst Media, says the grant also will allow his group to produce an additional 15-minute video based on interviews with residents of Danielson, this one with men and women who fought with Jewish partisans against the Nazis during WWII.

Both videos will become part of the teachers guide and curriculum, which will be developed by Simon Leutz, who heads the Social Studies Department at Amherst Pelham Regional High School and teaches a special Holocaust elective unit for seniors.

“I had so much good footage I couldn’t use from my initial interviews for that first video,” Lescault said. “Some of that was with people who had these amazing stories about fighting with the partisans, so I’m really happy we’ll be able to share that now.”

The impetus for the first video project, and now for the related curriculum development and the additional video, has come from Amherst resident Elsie Fetterman, who’s nearly 93 and grew up in Danielson, where her parents opened a hardware store in 1924; they were the only Jewish family in the town at the time.

“What happened in Danielson is really just a wonderful symbol of community spirit, generosity and hope, with neighbors welcoming the new population,” said Fetterman. “And that’s what we want students to get from the classroom project: What lessons can they learn about humanity and history from this story?”

The first video, called “A House Built by Hope: A Story of Compassion, Resilience and Religious Freedom,” was funded in part through a $9,200 grant that Fetterman received about three years ago from the Daughters of the American Revolution to tell the story of the Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, built in the 1950s by Jewish residents with the support of others in the community.

As Fetterman explains, about 50 Holocaust survivors arrived in Danielson in the early 1950s after the Jewish Agricultural Society, based in New York City, looked to place the new immigrants in towns in New England where they could settle on small farms and learn English. Many had lived in cities in Europe before the war, Fetterman notes, and had much to learn about rural life.

But they got help from Christian neighbors, some of whom gave them livestock and money, and from the town’s small American Jewish population.

During the 1950s, the Jewish community built Temple Beth Israel — again with support from others in town — which became the center not just for Jews but for an interfaith Thanksgiving service, co-hosted with a Christian church in the region. That tradition is still maintained, Fetterman said, and what’s known as the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society (she serves on the group’s board of directors) has helped maintain the building as a historical center and for periodic services, since it no longer hosts regular religious events.

The Daughters of the American Revolution also helped fund the temple’s Preservation Society, including making repairs to the building.

Maintenance and continued oversight are done both by Jewish families in neighboring communities and by some Christians in Danielson, she noted: “I wonder if there’s any place else in the country where no Jewish people live in the community but a temple there is still being preserved.”

Leutz, who’s been teaching at Amherst Regional for over 20 years, said Fetterman approached him about the curriculum development project last year after learning of his Holocaust class at ARHS. He sees the Danielson story offering two particularly salient lessons to students: one of people putting their lives back together after a tragedy, and another of how a community defines itself when it comes to helping others — what he says is known in Jewish life as a “circle of obligation.”

“How the community opened its arms to the Jewish population after World War II is really a great point of discussion,” he said.

And in a larger sense, Leutz notes, that story offers a stark contrast to other parts of his Holocaust class, which looks not just at the horror of what happened in Europe but at conditions in the United States before WWII, when anti-Semitism and strict limits on immigration prevented many European Jews, desperate to escape the Nazis, from entering the country.

Two area humanities scholars will advise Leutz on the curriculum guide: James Wald, associate professor of history at Hampshire College, and Jonathan Skolnik, associate professor of German at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Leutz says he hopes Wald and Skolnik also will be able to take part in question and answer sessions, and possibly some classroom discussions, when the two videos are shown in public forums and in local schools, although it’s unclear amid the COVID-19 pandemic when people will be able to be together again in public. (A screening of “A House Built by Hope” last month at the Jewish Community of Amherst was canceled due to the pandemic; it was to be the film’s first showing in Massachusetts, Lescault said.)

Leutz aims to have the curriculum finished by the end of the summer. That material, including the videos, is already slated for use next year in classes at ARHS, Holyoke High School, Frontier Regional School and Attleboro High School. Lescault and Fetterman say all material will be made available free of charge to schools across the commonwealth.

Fetterman also sees the Danielson story as a welcome contrast to the divisiveness, anger and anti-immigrant sentiments so prevalent in the country today, especially in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the African-American man killed by police May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparking nationwide protests.

“This story shows how we can be better than that,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. “A House Built By Hope” may screen online via Amherst Media later this month. Visit Amherstmedia.org for more details.