One of the elements of my work at the Federation that has always given me great pride is our deep commitment to caring for Holocaust survivors and ensuring that our communal memory of the Holocaust never fades. Recently, I had an extraordinary experience that brought this feeling to a new level.
I was standing inside an authentic Nazi railcar — full of millions of paper clips — in what would seem to be the most unlikely place. This railcar is located in front of a middle school in a tiny, predominantly Christian, Tennessee town. As a teary-eyed 14-year-old girl guided a Holocaust survivor through the car, she asked the elderly woman if she wanted to place a paper clip in the memorial railcar to honor her family that perished in the Holocaust. “Yes,” the woman replied softly, “My family has no graves.”
The survivor is Ann Spicer, a Los Angeles philanthropist who, over 75 years earlier, had made a terrifying journey to Auschwitz in a railcar like one we were in. The girl is Emma, a student at Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee (Whitwell’s population is 1,700 and about 100 miles from where the Ku Klux Klan started). Her teacher, Sandra Roberts, was also present and made a promise to Ann that her story would never be forgotten. Roberts is one of the co-creators of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial, whose mission is to teach people about the Holocaust while promoting tolerance.
How did I end up as part of this experience? It is because I work at The Jewish Federation. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet extraordinary people and connect them to each other, which I absolutely love to do.
I met Sandra Roberts when she was the keynote speaker at a 2006 Federation Sylvia Weisz Women’s Philanthropy fundraiser. She spoke about the genesis of the Children’s Holocaust Memorial located immediately in front of the middle school where she teaches. The story was so compelling that it was chronicled in the 2004 award-winning documentary PAPER CLIPS and in a book, titled The Paper Clips. In 1998, Sandra began using the Holocaust as a teaching vehicle to relay to her 8th grade students the importance of respecting different cultures and religions. Attempting to grasp the number of Jews who were murdered, the students started collecting paper clips with the goal to collect six million. They far surpassed it, ultimately receiving 21 million paper clips from all over the world. 14 years after Sandra’s speech at our Federation event, our community still talks about how touched they were by her passion.
Ann Spicer is a deeply committed member of our community, who I have had the pleasure of getting to know over many years through Sylvia Weisz Women’s Philanthropy at The Jewish Federation. Born in Rotem, Poland, she survived Auschwitz, though tragically her entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, she married another survivor, Edward Spicer, and they built a beautiful life and family together. Every day, Ann thinks about her beloved parents, two brothers, and sister who perished, yet she has not let this pain consume her. Knowing her history, I have found it especially touching that she has told me often how much she values the important and impactful work of The Jewish Federation. In addition to her longtime generous support of our work, Ann has been active with several other Jewish charitable organizations. She has spent countless hours cataloging items, working as docent, and sharing her story at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
During a visit at her home one day, I noticed a copy of The Paper Clips book on her coffee table. I shared with her how much I loved the documentary. She told me that she loved the book but had never seen the film. Ann was happy to learn that Sandra was now in her 20th year of teaching the Holocaust curriculum to 7th and 8th grade students. When I told her that I was friendly with Sandra and had always wanted to visit the memorial, we discussed the idea of going to Tennessee together. We turned that idea into a reality. A future vacation for me to visit friends in Nashville now included a trip to Whitwell, Tennessee with Ann. About a year later, when we arrived at the airport in Chattanooga, Sandra was waiting for us at the gate, with roses in hand.
The next few days in Chattanooga were a whirlwind. Ann told her story twice to a total of 250 middle and high school students. We had a home-cooked meal at Sandra’s mother’s home with much of Sandra’s large extended family. It seemed that the whole town was excited to meet Ann. We had a hard time keeping up with Ann’s desire to take so much in with her boundless energy and share her life experience with those around her. Ann’s appreciation and delight for the kindness shown by Sandra and others in the town was contagious.
The trip was full of amazing moments, one of which happened inside the memorial’s exhibit room where Ann translated original letters written by Auschwitz prisoners to their families, switching from German to Polish to Yiddish to English. The room was brimming with Holocaust books and artifacts (including a rescued Torah from Poland). This living history was witnessed by two students, Emma and Kylie, both of whom are currently taking Sandra’s yearlong holocaust class.
At the end of our visit, Ann shared, “Sandra promised me she would roll out the red carpet, but she really rolled out a gold carpet. I felt like royalty.” I know meeting Ann literally brought history to life for Sandra’s students. The connection they made was priceless, and I was honored to be part of it.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles touches every Jewish life in Los Angeles, Israel, and around the world. My experience with Ann truly demonstrated the power and impact of our Federation — from Los Angeles to Whitwell, Tennessee and beyond. I look forward to meeting more extraordinary people through my work with the Federation.
Though Ann Spicer is one of the more fortunate Holocaust survivors in our community, many are not. It is estimated that roughly 30% of the 10,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles are either low income or living in poverty; most are over the age of 85 and do not have support networks. As part of the Federation’s work to Care for Jews in Need, one of the Federation’s priorities is to improve the financial, psycho-social, and physical wellbeing of these low-income survivors. To learn more, go to https://www.jewishla.org/caring-for-jews-in-need/seniors/