When 91 year old Auschwitz survivor Mrs. Bronia Brandman spoke to 200 students at Brooklyn Democracy Academy (BDA) about the horrors of the Holocaust and the importance of tolerance, there was a hush in the auditorium. Mrs. Brandman rejected the podium and stood in the first row of seats. Her diminutive figure was barely visible and she spoke in not much more than a whisper. However as she told her story the students became transfixed.

When Mrs. Brandman described a moment when a young mother suffocated her infant so that its cries would not reveal their hiding place to the Nazis, the students gasped and held each other. When she described a split second decision that would forever part her from her younger sisters, some students cried. And, when Mrs. Brandman finished speaking, the students stood and cheered.

While the students of BDA may look much like any other group of high school students, they are not. Every student at BDA has previously dropped out of school or fallen behind and is in danger of “aging out” of the public school system. It would be easy to assume that the students and Mrs. Brandman had little in common, yet as she spoke a precious bond was forged between this unlikely intersection of cultures and their shared experiences with violence and oppression.

One BDA graduate was raising his younger siblings while living in a shelter and attending the school. Other students struggle to graduate to be positive examples to their own children. One young woman who did not want to be named said, “I know what it feels like to hope to be rescued. Until this place (BDA) I kept hoping to be rescued too.”

Students dressed in black with a paper Star of David pinned to their arms offered spoken-word performances in which one student noted, “You are not alone, I have been cold and hungry and afraid too.” Another student described what it was like to watch her father being beaten.

“I just knew that the students would benefit from this. All these kids have had their own experiences with violence,” said teacher Sue Koenert who brought the mobile exhibit and Mrs. Brandman to BDA. Senior advocate counselor Shirley Vaughn was also very instrumental in the program.

Student Gabriel Morris read a poem which he wrote in response to the mobile exhibit. He asked, “How can we teach them that violence will eventually overtake them and the cycle will repeat to the next generations’ defeat!”

Cherise Littlejohn, BDA program director: “It was an incredible event. We will never forget it. Our students were much moved and really embraced the facts and testimonies of the Holocaust.”

When Mrs. Brandman was asked what she thought of the program, “The potential, the potential.” she said in a soft echo, adding “I felt love from them all.” After she spoke many students stepped forward to hug and thank Mrs. Brandman. One young emcee gave his baseball cap to her and then taught her some of his dance moves. In that moment it became clear that these students had made an important connection with the Holocaust.

The event was curated and sponsored by the Afikim Foundation, an innovative incubator and implementer of Jewish educational, cultural and values-oriented programs.