It was a night of dinner, dancing, and storytelling. The Senior Prom. Everyone in attendance was wearing their best gowns, their nicest suits, and a yellow rose boutonniere. The boutonnieres symbolized the Yellow Rose Project, an organization founded in 2011 by gerontologist and community organizer Elise Kayfetz that gives Holocaust survivors the opportunity to build relationships, celebrate life, and educate the younger generation about the Holocaust.
The 4th annual Senior Prom, held on June 18, 2013, brought elder Holocaust survivors and younger people together to share in a night of happiness and love of life. The Senior Prom was designed to give a prom experience to those who never had one. Hiding in basements, living in concentration camps, or running away, most Holocaust survivors never had the chance to attend high school, let alone celebrate prom.
In our modern culture, prom is seen as a rite of passage, and now this Senior Prom is an annual event to which survivors can look forward. Attendees are treated to a beauty makeover, transportation, dinner, live entertainment, a prom photo, and a boutonniere. Just as a yellow Star of David was the symbol that would designate Jewish people during the time of the Nazi regime, the yellow rose has become the prom’s symbol for celebration and new beginnings.
Gathering these two seemingly diverse groups in a room for one night gets more important every year, since this generation will be the last group that will have personal experiences with Holocaust survivors. It becomes integral for younger people to hear the stories and share experiences with survivors so they can learn about and remember one of the worst tragedies in human history. Says Elise, “We will dance and celebrate life with survivors until the last [survivor] is alive…and then we will dance with their grandchildren, and their children, and so on…”
After tearing up the dance floor, one elderly lady called me over to her table, where she showed me a black and white photo of herself when she was liberated from Auschwitz. She was pictured with six other girls, all of with whom she keeps in touch. Last year, those who were able made a mission back to the concentration camp to revisit the place where they tragically had to spend their youth.
Another survivor told us a story about her experiences as a young Jewish girl in Paris during World War II. She showed us pictures of herself as a young girl and told us that despite her blond hair and blue eyes, she was still recognized as a Jew. Stories such as these, directly from survivors’ lips, are meant to personalize the Holocaust in a unique way. The stories shared and relationships built help the younger generation identify with the tragedies of the Holocaust in a way that no book or movie ever can.
Yet, The Senior Prom is not about sadness or remorse; rather, it is a celebration of life, recognition of community, and a display of resilience. It is an opportunity to share, to dance, and to rejoice in a unique and meaningful way. A prom king and prom queen are named and the night (late afternoon) is partied away. Together, the younger generation and the old can carry on memories and pass on lessons with a smile. See you next year.
WORDS: BRIAN SWEIGMAN
PHOTOS: ISAAC ZELUNKA
PHOTOGRAPHED HERE: Bill Nightengale, Fella Saks, Howard Kleinberg, Jaime Lerman, Kyle Kofsky, Mania Hudy, Nancy Kleinberg & Friends
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