The reading list for Diane’s sixth-grade history class included books on World War II and the Holocaust. Diane wondered why each year her students always seemed to pass over “Alicia: My Story,” the autobiography of Alicia Appleman-Jurman.
As a nine-year-old Jewish girl in 1939 Poland, Alicia Jurman saw her father and three of her four brothers disappeared, to find out later they had been killed by the Nazis. Alicia’s 17-year-old brother Zachary took up with the Polish resistance, was betrayed by a “friend” and was hanged in front of the police station, his body left dangling at the end of a rope as an example to others who would resist. Alicia and others crept back to the police station in the dead of night, cut Zachary’s body down, and buried him in a Jewish cemetery.
At one point, Alicia assumed her mother’s identity to protect her mother from the police, and Alicia’s mother ended up being killed defending Alicia’s life. Alicia survived the war -- the only member of her family to do so -- and made her way to Israel. There she fought as a soldier in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, served in the Israeli Navy, and eventually married an American and moved to the US.
Year after year, Diane’s sixth-graders had chosen to do their book reports on other titles from the list. And year after year, they each missed out on this compelling tale of a young girl’s courage and endurance in a time of war.
They each missed out until 2007, when my 11-year-old daughter Audrey said “looks interesting… I’ll bite.”
As Audrey read Alicia’s story, she was moved… and felt that a simple book report would not be enough. Audrey told Diane that rather than writing a book report, she wanted to find Alicia and to conduct an author interview.
Diane was initially skeptical and was leaning toward a “no.” After all, she thought, we have no idea whether Alicia is even still alive. And even if she were, would she return a call from some 11-year-old girl in Indiana? But Diane saw the eagerness in Audrey’s eyes and gave her the go-ahead, on the condition that Audrey have a backup plan if the interview fell through.
Two weeks later, Audrey showed up to class -- with a smile on her face and a phone number in her hand.
Audrey told Diane that she had indeed been able to find Alicia, that she had completed her interview with Alicia, and… handing the phone number to Diane, said “Alicia wants you to call her.”
What came next would change things for Alicia, for Diane, and for the classes of Diane’s sixth-graders that followed. Diane and Alicia, now in her late 70s and living in California, began a conversation that grew into a teaching relationship that bloomed to a friendship.
Prior to 2007, not a single sixth-grader in any of Diane’s classes had chosen to read “Alicia.” As Diane’s friendship with Alicia grew, interest in Alicia’s book increased among Diane’s students. They arranged for Alicia to participate in a phone conference each year with Diane’s students to talk about the book and Alicia’s life and experiences. By 2009, Alicia was signing copies of her book for Diane’s students.
Last year Alicia signed 65 copies of her book.
And last summer, Diane flew to California to spend several days at the home of her now good friend, Alicia.
This. And you wonder if I am proud of my daughter?