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Uri Orlev - Robinson Crusoe in Warsaw

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

"When I was a child we played a game called "How Many Children Will You Have?" Usually, it was played in a sandbox. One child took a handful of sand, tossed it in the air, and flipped his hand over so that the back of it faced up. As some of the falling sand settled there, he announced: 'So many children will you have!"... The sand thrower tossed the sand into the air again, flipped his hand palm-side up, and called out as the sand fell: 'This many will die in the forest!' He was referring to the grains that missed his hand and dropped to the ground. That happened to most of them. A smaller number fell into his open palm. And so he kept tossing the remaining sand into the air, catching it now on the back of his hand and now in his palm while announcing: 'This many will be run over!' 'This many will die of the plague!' ... 'This many will die in a fire!... This many will be poisoned!'... When there were less than ten grains of sand left... they were counted. That was how many children you would have. ... I took my son to the sandbox in the playground and taught him the game. And then I explained that it was like that with the Germans. They kept throwing us into the air and great numbers of us died, but my brother and I landed safely each time..."
-- From The Sandgame by Uri Orlev

More than 500 people gathered at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, NJ to meet Uri Orlev, the author of The Island on Bird Street and view the movie made from Orlev's book. The audience, made up of mostly 7th and 8th grader students and their parents, sat spellbound during the feature length movie - which portrayed Alex, a young boy hiding from the Nazis and surviving alone in a deserted Polish ghetto. The movie and talk were followed by an exhibit of the children's projects related to the themes of the book.

Uri Orlev, of Jerusalem, and his brother Steven Orlowsky of Port Washington, NY survived together in the deserted Warsaw Ghetto. Uri was 11 and Steven only 9 in 1942 when the Germans emptied the ghetto.

"In the Warsaw Ghetto, there were 300,000 people in the Fall of 1940," reported Orlev. "In the summer of '42 the killing started. In a few months most people disappeared. Most were put on trains, leaving an empty ghetto."

"The streets were empty. You could climb every staircase and open each door - everything was there except people, food, jewelry, dogs and cats," he continued. He explained that the few Jews who were allowed to remain, including his mother and aunt, worked in the factory as slave laborers.

"There was a 'selection' in the factory," recounted Orlev, referring to the Nazi method for choosing Jews to deport to concentration camps. "I was with my mother. My mother told me, 'when we pass the ruined house, I will push you and you run and wait for me'. Many, many children were told this. No one ever came back for them."

"She told me 'If I don't come back, go back to the factory to your aunt'," Orlev said. "Our mother was killed." Orlev explained that his aunt cared for the two boys for the duration of the war. And in the ghetto they survived by scavenging in empty apartments. "Our aunt sent us through the empty flats ...to find coal to heat our rooms. I was always looking for children's rooms. I looked for stamps and books that I didn't read yet."

Likewise, in The Island on Bird Street, Alex survives by holing up in a hideout of a bombed out building, with his only companion, a pet mouse. In the empty apartments of the deserted ghetto he finds clothing, books, toys, and enough food to keep him alive.

The book and the movie portray a child's eye view of the Holocaust. "I cannot talk or think or write about the period of the Holocaust as an adult, only as I remember it as a child," revealed Orlev.

"Children need to play - like hunger [makes you] need to eat and need to drink," explained Orlev. "I played with my brother all the time [throughout the war]..." he recalled. "We played war games. We continued to play the same game. I was Tarzan ruler of the world. In times of 'peace' he was my brother, in times of 'war' he was my enemy. I made the rules, since I was older. But he had a good weapon: 'I am not playing with you', so I had to change the rules and let him win occasionally."

Uri Orlev and his brother survived the ghetto, became hidden children for a period of time, and spent almost two years in Bergen-Belsen, where Orlev began to write poetry. They were liberated by the 9th U.S. Army in April 1945.

"My aunt sent us to Israel - alone to Palestine - to a Kibbutz," reported Orlev. "I didn't know what was a Kibbutz or what was Palestine."

"Palestine was like a new adventure to me. I always liked scary books. I was always jealous of the heroes," revealed Orlev. "When the war started it was like an adventure."

Although he lived and survived the adventure as a child, he was not able to record the story for many decades. "I started to write at 45," Orlev remarked. "I wanted to write my Robinson Crusoe story because I liked [that book] very much. Many situations [in The Island on Bird Street] come from my experiences."

The film, which played in Israeli and European movie houses and has been aired on the Showtime network, is a real international collaboration. It was produced by Soren Craig-Jacobsen of Denmark and American Rudy Cohen, and directed by Craig-Jacobsen, who used a screenplay written by two British authors. The actors included American actor Jack Warden, British actor Jordan Kiziuk, who plays Alex, and numerous German and Polish castmembers. Outdoor scenes were filmed in Poland and indoor scenes were shot in Germany, where they built a five story set of the "ruined house" inside a tractor factory hangar.

The movie has become an important resource in Holocaust education. "In Sweden they have a program called 'Living History'", reported Orlev. "They printed 400,000 books about the Holocaust and gave them to all the children. There are ten films that every school and club can request. One of them is Island on Bird Street. In 1999 it was the film most requested."

New Jersey and New York children and their parents had been preparing for this special screening event for months, by participating in the International Book Sharing Project of The Ghetto Fighters' House, a museum in Israel's Western Galilee.

The Ghetto Fighters' House is "the only Holocaust museum dedicated to fighters and survivors". It was the first museum in the world to deal with the Holocaust. It was established on Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot in 1949 by a special group of Holocaust survivors - many of whom had fought as partisans and resistors.

Yad Layeled is a the branch of the Ghetto Fighters' House which addresses Holocaust education for children. Founded in 1995, it "brings Holocaust education to today's children on their terms." They hold creative workshops for children in art, drama, music and writing and they sponsor international education programs teaching tolerance and respect for others.

This Book Sharing Project involves American schools being paired with Israeli schools to study Holocaust events in a unique way. Students from the paired schools read Orlev's The Island on Bird Street and The Sandgame. They correspond with each other via fax and e-mail, and complete projects based on the books.

"Since beginning as a small pilot with Moriah [School] four years ago," recalled Debbie Nahshon, Executive Director of American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters' House, "the project is now taking place in forty schools, and it will grow to sixty in the coming year."

Those schools include Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union Counties, Moriah School of Englewood, the Kushner Hebrew Academy, and New York schools: A.J. Heschel School, Ramaz, and Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester County.

"Our school is paired with the Tivon School in Haifa," reported Beryl Bresgi, librarian at Solomon Schechter School in New Milford. "The children sent introductory letters to the [Israeli] school. The seventh graders are reading The Island on Bird Street [in English classes] and in Hebrew classes they are reading Uri Orlev's biography, Mischak hachol, The Sandgame. They made the games he talked about in his book. They write to the Israeli children in Hebrew also."

Solomon Schechter teachers who are involved in the project include language arts teacher Allison Marx, Hebrew teachers, Dafna Zilbershmid and Naomi Imer, and art teacher Barbara Ackerman.

"In art the children made projects in response to the book. We used the theme "hope and liberation", explained Bresgi.

The Moriah School launched the book-sharing project three years ago, according to Mark Sarna, President of American Friends of the Ghetto Fighters House. Dr. Karen Shawn, Assistant Principal at the Moriah School described how Moriah seventh graders responded creatively in many different ways to Orlev's writings. Their projects included a video which was to be presented to Uri Orlev. Fred Maltzan, Moriah's computer teacher coordinated the unique project, which was produced by seventh graders, Ariella Friedman, Daniel Vun Kannon, Sara Greenfest, Eli Stavsky and Yitzy Kornbluth.

"The video contains other groups making their creative art projects," read the caption for this project. "We added music, text and effects into the video. Our group interviewed other groups and they explained what their projects were and what they represent."

A highlight of the video is a performance by Moriah students Gary Stein, Adam Sasouness, Jacob Frommer and Michael Hoenig who wrote original poetry inspired by Uri Orlev's story, accompanied by Gavriel Kahane who composed original cello music for the poetry readings.

Other projects by students from the participating schools included dioramas, models of the ghetto, and a number of white mice - representing Snow, Alex's tiny companion. Many children related to Snow's important role in the book and movie. "In this movie my brother doesn't exist - only the mouse," remarked Orlev, referring to the fact that he symbolized his brother - his only playmate during the Holocaust - as a tiny white mouse.

Moriah student, Elana Yammer, explained an intricate art project she was involved with: "We cut [scenes from the book] out of cardboard and made them into different shapes to look like a puzzle to show how every part of the book fits into Alex's life."

Susie Wahrman and Rivky Stern, also from Moriah School, wrote a play based on Alex's difficult moral decisions during the war. For instance, they tackled the question of whether or not Alex should shoot a German soldier who was about to murder a Jew, and whether or not Alex should reveal to a Polish girlfriend that he was a Jew.

"The kids really worked very hard on their projects," commented Rachel Schwartz, a Moriah teacher who helped coordinate the event. "They took a piece of literature and created an artistic response. They took their emotions and created something which symbolized the meaning of the book."

"It sounds unbelievable and amazing that he managed to survive," remarked Susie Wahrman, after hearing Orlev describe his own Holocaust experiences. "It seems like it's fiction, but we know it's true."

Information on the International Book-sharing Project can be obtained on the web at: www.korczak-school.org.il
Information on the Ghetto Fighters' House can be found at: www.gfh.org.il.
The American Friends of The Ghetto Fighters' House can be reached at (201) 833-5040

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