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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. From the website of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society

  • 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
Wednesday, June 17, 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, working with an organization that has preserved an historic Jewish temple in the small town of Danielson in northeast Connecticut, has put together in the last few years through interviews with Holocaust survivors, their children, and American-born Jews with roots in the town.

Now a new step to the project has been added: Amherst Media has received an $11,250 grant from Mass Humanities to use the video as the basis for creating 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 in part 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.

Fetterman also serves on the board of directors of Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society (TBIPS), an organization in Danielson that maintains the town’s historic synagogue — the building is on two historic registries — for regular services, a community seder, and as a research center, among other things. It was TBIPS that, through a proposal written by Fetterman, received an initial $9,200 grant about three years ago from the Daughters of the American Revolution and commissioned the first Amherst Media video.

“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?”

That first video, called “A House Built by Hope: A Story of Compassion, Resilience and Religious Freedom,” tells 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 improve their 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 a center not just for Jews but for an interfaith Thanksgiving service, co-hosted with a Christian church in the region and still a tradition today, Fetterman says. The synagogue also continues to host regular Friday night and Saturday morning services (halted at the moment because of the pandemic), celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and other holidays, and Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.

The Daughters of the American Revolution has also helped fund physical improvements and repairs to the building.

The continued work of TBIPS and the services offered in the synagogue are provided by Jewish families in neighboring communities, the children and grandchildren of the Holocaust survivors who originally came to the area, and by some Christians in Danielson. As Fetterman 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. The film has previously been shown at the Temple Beth Israel.

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.