Southern Cayuga students take part in conversations through the Anne Frank Tree Project.

Spring encourages us to rejoice in all things green and growing. The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project continues to gather the community for conversations that celebrate our ability to learn and grow. As the community assembled for spring programs, I could almost hear Anne Frank’s voice: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

On March 22, the community gathered to share a meal, discuss books and view the film “Book Thief,” based on the book of the same title by Markus Zusak. Zusak was inspired by a true story his mother told him. She related watching Jews being marched down the street by Nazis when a boy offered a struggling old man a piece of bread. In response, the German soldiers took away the bread and whipped the man and the boy. Zusak saw this as the ultimate symbol of the difference between kindness and cruelty. Death narrates the story of Liesel, a girl growing up in Germany during World War II. Liesel is raised by foster parents and first steals a book from the gravediggers who bury her young brother. Books sustain Liesel for their power to preserve the truth and overcome even death in keeping stories alive. Program participants were encouraged to bring a book that they would hide from any tyrant wanting to control the truth by burning books. One young reader needed the group to vote on the proper pronunciation of “Aesop," with either an “A” or “E” as initial sound. The vote was inconclusive, and her wise mother commented, “It really doesn’t matter how you pronounce the author’s name, you just need to read the Fables and discuss them.”

Some adults brought books that had been required reading. “Of Mice and Men” sparked a conversation by a group who vividly remembered discussing the nature of evil in English classes in the 1960s. Conversations sprang up between those whose books were by the same authors, John Steinbeck and J.K. Rowling, and by those who loved fantasy, science fiction or classics like “Crime and Punishment,” the Bible or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

After the meal, the group moved to the auditorium for the “Book Thief" movie. At the end of the film, two seniors in their team jackets towered over the group. I was delighted to hear these young men discussing the nature of death, and how the voices of death and god could be confused. I imagined a young Anne Frank joining in their conversation.

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On April 2, high school students gathered in the auditorium for a production of “Little Bits of Light: An Adaptation of 'I Never Saw Another Butterfly'” by playwright Amanda Faye Martin. The play intertwined poems and artwork from children at the concentration camp Terezin with major historical events and the playwright’s family’s history. The story follows Pepicek, an optimistic Czech boy, and Werner, an isolated young man who only recently discovered he’s Jewish, during their time at Terezin. The camp was used by Nazis to cover up the crimes rampant in camps by censoring and fabricating what visitors learned. When the Red Cross is scheduled to visit the camp, Werner conspires to use the visit to expose the Nazis and tell the truth. During the question-and-answer session at the end of the play, a student asked the actors how they prepared for the role of the manipulative and evil Nazi staff. Actors recounted the hours of research and discussion that went into their performance. Another student observed, “It was interesting that even among the young captives, they bullied the new kid.”

On April 3, Bill Zimpfer led the community in a discussion of “Hidden in France: A Boy’s Journey Under the Nazi Occupation” by Simon Jeruchim. The author tells his story, beginning in September 1939, when France was invaded. He and his siblings were sent into hiding around the countryside of Normandy by their parents and partisan friends. Their parents, unbeknownst to the children, were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they perished.

The group discussed the courage and persistence of the children and the French partisans who sheltered them. Young Simon’s optimism mirrored that of his contemporary, Anne Frank. Simon’s vivid memories of those who did and did not survive reminded the group that everyone has an obligation to keep their own stories alive for their children and future generations

The Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project Committee invites you to participate in our next conversation. At 6 p.m. Friday, May 3, at Southern Cayuga High School, our keynote speaker Anthony Gaenslen will discuss his French family’s connection to Simon Jeruchim’s story during World War II and his own decision to join the Freedom Riders in the 1960s to register black voters and stand for social justice.

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Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the King Ferry Food Pantry, ABC Cayuga and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, and a member of the Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She coordinates a literacy support program at Southern Cayuga Central School.