Lego My Ghetto: Sparks Fly Again as Kids Craft Shoah Model

By Gabriel Sanders

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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Lego is all about connecting disparate elements, snapping together different pieces to form new constructions. But for Dan Sieradski, editor of the Web log, one recent Lego-based project — using the toy to fashion a Holocaust-inspired model — went one click too far.

On hearing that a New Jersey architect was going to lead a children’s workshop focused on constructing a 400-square-foot replica of the Warsaw Ghetto at a local Jewish community center, Sieradski, who writes under the nom de blog Mobius, turned apoplectic.

“When I think about the senseless slaughter of 10,000,000 innocent Jews, Roma, queers, political dissidents and other undesirables, I think Lego,” Sieradski wrote at the start of a stinging November 1 post. Shifting from sarcasm to indignation, he added, “It makes me ill to see people trivializing the Shoah in the name of commemorating it.”

The workshop, which took place here on November 5 at the Alex Aidekman campus of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, proceeded without incident. There were no demonstrators and no one fainted in horror, but Sieradski’s concerns were in the air nevertheless, even if event organizers hadn’t read his exactpost. His arguments were familiar to them.

As the Holocaust continues to occupy a central place in the American Jewish consciousness, parents, educators and the planners of communal events have been faced with a vexing question: Is it possible to teach children about the tragedy of Europe’s Jews in a way that, on the one hand, doesn’t trivialize the horrors but, at the same time, doesn’t induce nightmares?

The Lego-Holocaust nexus is not new to controversy. In 2002, New York’s Jewish Museum staged the exhibition “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” which, among other provocative works, featured Polish-born artist Zbigniew Libera’s “Lego Concentration Camp Set,” a collection of seven empty boxes bearing pictures of death camps fashioned out of Lego. Months before it even opened, the exhibition sparked an outcry. Writing in these pages, Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said that the show was “in excremental taste” and that “there can be no excuse, aesthetic or otherwise, for the crude desecration of the Holocaust inherent in the display.” Others, however, found the exhibition to be worthy. Also writing in these pages, University of Massachusetts professor James Young made an argument for engaging with the exhibition, despite the unsettling questions it raised. “What does it mean,” he asked, “to turn a child’s set of building blocks into a toy concentration camp?”

Stephen Schwartz, the originator of the ghetto project, has been using Lego as an educational tool for nearly a decade. The idea first came to him when his daughter, a second grade teacher in the Bronx, asked him to help her teach a lesson on zoning. The lesson was a success, and Schwartz has since used the same basic idea to craft a series of workshops for both Jewish and secular audiences, from re-creations of the Old City of Jerusalem to the town center of Montclair, N.J.

The ghetto project, however, presented a unique set of challenges. Schwartz worried that he was going to offend, but he persevered and today, after having done the program a number of times, he feels vindicated. “I get letters from rabbis, from educators saying this is the greatest program they’ve ever seen,” he said.

Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council that brought Schwartz to Whippany, emphasized that the program includes far more than simply playing with colored blocks. After the walls are up and a few key structures are in place, Schwartz gives a lesson on the history of the ghetto, including the fact that only a 20-foot section of the outer wall still stands. This synagogue was turned into a stable, he says, and here, at 18 Mila Street, is where the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was planned.

“A 10-year-old isn’t going to see ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘The Pianist,’” Wind said. “Here, in a non-threatening way, we can show that this was a heroic chapter. The Jews fought with bravery against what was the greatest army in the world and held out for over a month. That’s the message we’d like them to understand.”

And indeed, those who turned out for the November 5 event — a group that included about 40 children, some parents and a sprinkling of Holocaust survivors — responded positively.

Sam Bradin, an Auschwitz survivor at the event with his 8-year-old grandson, found the program to be educational and not at all inappropriate.

“Of course it doesn’t portray 100% what it looked like,” he said, “but more or less it gives the young people an idea of what went on there.”

Reid Schalet, 12, who, together with his brothers Grant, 15, and Myles, 10, built an apartment building for the ghetto, spoke of how jarring it was to be able to picture just how tight the quarters were. The project, he said, enabled him to see anew the story of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. “It makes you realize how he had to live just to be safe,” he said.

Asked how he felt about the Lego ghetto in its finished form, he said, “Hopefully, this is how it was back then.”

Marsha and Isaac Fajerman encountered a bit of trouble in persuading their three children — Kalilah, 9; Erika, 7, and Ethan, 6 — to go to the Lego event. The three already had been to Hebrew school in the morning, and Rumson, N.J., where the Fajermans live, is an hour’s drive from Whippany. But they nevertheless felt it important. Though Isaac’s father survived Bergen-Belsen, much of the extended family perished in the camps. “The children are aware of the Holocaust,” their mother said, “but it has been difficult to find a way into the subject that isn’t too horrifying.” She appreciated how accessible the afternoon’s program had been, but was unsure of what, if anything, her children had taken away from it.

“We have a long drive ahead of us,” she said. “We’ll see what they learned.”

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