WINNIPEG — When Rosenfeld Elementary School teacher Jackie Nickel introduced her Grade 5 class to the book The Underground Reporters five years ago, it wasn’t with the intention of teaching her largely Mennonite students in the rural southern Manitoba school about the Holocaust.
Nora and John Freund, left, and Jackie Nickel in front of Rosenfeld Elementary School
“It was my first year teaching Grade 5,” Nickel said. “My goal was to encourage my students in creative writing, and I thought this true story about a group of Jewish kids in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia creating their own weekly news magazine for their community might inspire them.”
It worked. Each year, her students create their own classroom newspaper detailing what is going on in their lives.
And, on June 6, Nickel and her current students not only met the only survivor of that group of Czechoslavakian Jewish children, they also, along with the entire community of Rosenfeld, Man. – about 300 residents – threw John Freund an 81st birthday party. It featured poems, songs, a huge birthday cookie and a cheque for $1,383 that the students raised to cover the airfare of Freund and his wife, Nora, who flew in from Toronto with their son-in-law, Pini Buium, and granddaughter and aspiring filmmaker Orlee Buium.
In accepting the cheque, Freund suggested that the school introduce a yearly essay contest – the topic being “how to get along with people” – with part of the $1,383 going toward a cash prize for the winner.
Freund’s town of Ceske Budejovice – about 120 miles south of Prague near the Austrian border – was occupied by the Nazis in the spring of 1938 when Freund was nine years old. The town had a Jewish population of about 1,000 out of a total of about 50,000 at the time.
While living under Nazi occupation and no longer allowed to attend school, Freund and some of his Jewish friends decided to create their own magazine, a one-page sheet they called Klepy – meaning “gossip” – for the Jewish community. They eventually printed 20 editions.
In the spring of 1942, all the Jews of Ceske Budejovice were deported to Terezin. John Freund survived Auschwitz and a death march. In 1948, he was one of 1,000 Jewish war orphans who were allowed entry into Canada. He completed his education, became a chartered accountant, married – his wife, Nora, is the daughter of a Czechoslavakian Jewish family who were able to come to Canada before the war – and raised a family.
After the war, Freund, who was one of just 35 survivors from Ceske Budejovice’s Jewish community, learned that the copies of Klepy had been buried for safe keeping and were dug up after the war by a sister of one of the contributors.
In 1989, he returned to Czechoslovakia and was able to make copies of them.
In 2005, Toronto-based children’s author Kathy Kacer wrote The Underground Reporters based on Freund’s story. (He has also published a memoir of his own titled Spring’s End.)
Nickel first contacted Freund four years ago and they’ve kept in touch. While Freund and Kathy Kacer have spoken in a number of Toronto-area schools, he was reluctant to travel to rural Manitoba.
That changed last fall, he said, when he and his wife were flying back from a visit to Israel and got to know a Mennonite couple on the flight who are from the Rosenfeld area, about 90 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
“They invited us to come and visit them,” Freund said. “When we found out that they live not far from Rosenfeld Elementary School, we decided to come.”
The Freunds arrived in Winnipeg on the Friday and went to Rosenfeld the next day. They stayed with Jackie Nickel and her family. On the Monday morning (June 6), Freund talked to the students about his wartime experiences.
“It was a very good presentation,” Nickel said. “The kids had a lot of questions.”
For the afternoon, the school had previously scheduled its annual spring concert, with John Freund being this year’s guest of honour. Among the presentations were a poem written by the Grade 4 class called Friend or Freund, a poem by the Grade 5 class titled Holocaust and a rendition of Alleluia by the Grade 4-6 choir.
In the evening, Freund spoke to a gathering of Rosenfeld’s adults.
“It’s very important for us as Jews to reach out and educate people about the Holocaust,” Freund said.
Nickel said that “it was wonderful having John Freund and his family with us. He challenged us to be aware of and combat hate and racism.”