Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dispatch: Traveling Back in Sighet

I am steeped in the Holocaust, but most of it comes from my mother’s side of the family. Her father was in hiding in Amsterdam for a few months and escaped because of his blue eyes and light hair. As a child I always imagined that he was sitting at a bus stop and Hitler walked by and didn’t realize he was Jewish.

When I was 8 or 9, I read my mom a book report on the Upstairs Room, a book about a girl in hiding, and she sat on the couch listening and crying. She has read a lot of historical and painful books about World War II and the Holocaust. We joke that she likes to read about trauma, but it is not really funny. I think it is a search for self and a desire to reconnect to past and childhood. The truth is that most of the books she reads are passed on to us and so literature is one way that I have been immersed.

I grew up hearing stories about Papa Henry, my dad’s father. About how he left Hungary in 1928 and didn’t have enough money for passage from Hamburg to New York so he had to stow away in a tiny crowded hold and his cousin had to pay the rest of the fare when he arrived. About the special suit he spent too much money on to look good at a wedding in Brooklyn. We heard about his butcher shop in Harlem, where he was one of a few owners to hire African-American people in the thirties and forties, and the business as it moved to Boston – and my dad, who broke his nose when he slipped pushing meat on racks and clearly didn’t inherit the butcher genes.

But it was when the plans for our trip to Sighet, Romania, the town where my grandfather was born, began to take hold, that the story of the Blank family came together for me, as a descendant and as a filmmaker. I went to Sighet because the town was having a commemoration weekend to honor the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews who lived there, including my family. Over 100 people came from the U.S., Israel, and Canada.

Sighet is located in northern Romania, near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders. 40 percent of the town was Jewish, and it was a thriving intellectual and cultural community. Several important Talmudic scholars began their studies there.

My journey into the past started before I arrived in Sighet, with a series of emails from my Dad’s first-cousin Freddie in Israel:

Your grandma's last name was Wieder. She went with the transport to Auschwitz on May 18, 1944.

I always knew she died in the Holocaust. But there is something different to learn of her exact journey and the place where she died. It moves her from a group of unknown six million to a person, a picture -- to family. Since my visit to Sighet I have seen the train tracks that took her away in the transport.

And the second email (all of these people are uncles, aunts and cousins):

The following souls were deported on that fateful June 18:

- Sheindel (my great-grandmother)
- Julia + Mendel + Children
- Ethel
- Moishe (my grandfather's brother who I never knew about)
- Simon - Saved and liberated
- Adolph - Saved and liberated
- Jontel + Ester + 2 sons - Jontel gave his last piece of bread to Simon and died one day before the liberation
- Esther was taken earlier from Debrecen and liberated
- Avraham and Itzhak were taken to forced labor work lumber camps in the Ukraine. Both escaped, only Itzhak died immediately thereafter from Typhus]

The story is starting to unfold. We must get as much info as possible from those that remember and can tell.

It’s funny, in my profession you spend a lot of time filming, taking pictures and then you get to the end of something and realize you haven’t taken any photos. The other day, I saw a photo and realized quickly that it captured my entire week.

Taken by my cameraman and friend Felix Seuffert, it is an image of a memorial in the cemetery in Sighet that contains soap made from the bodies of people cremated at Auschwitz. In the photo, the memorial is in the background and in the foreground is Felix’s tripod.

Felix and I have worked together before on my Schools That Work series, traveling to rural and sometimes remote parts of South Africa. But we had never traveled this far together.

The week started in the airport in Munich when Felix met my parents for the first time and ended at the train station, from which thousands of people, including my relatives, were packed into cattle cars and taken away.

The weekend was full of incredible events and charged with the energy and love of those who gathered to remember. As my mom said, it felt as if we were family. I was moved by so much -- praying at synagogue, listening to a klezmer concert, standing with extended family in front of my great-grandfather Aaron’s grave, the way people opened themselves up to me and my camera, and hearing stories of the past and present.

Sitting in the balcony on Shabbat in the only synagogue left in Sighet, my mom and I prayed as well as we could, with a little help from the women on either side. I have conflicting feelings about the separation of men and women at Orthodox synagogues, but sometimes it is special. Over the balcony, we could see my dad, wearing the kepah I bought him in Jerusalem and the tallit my mom’s father used to wear. Friday night was the first time I cried, sitting there, thinking that my grandfather and great grandfather had prayed in this town and in a synagogue that is no more.

Once the weekend ended and my family left, I had two days in Sighet on my own. It was when things got quiet that I could breathe and delve even more deeply. We didn’t have anyone left to interview and we could spend time capturing the space – the space of today, thinking of how to use it to show yesterday.

Johnny Popescu, our guide, told us stories about people being herded into the ghetto and a wall being built in the middle of a street so former neighbors, Jews and Christians were no more. We interviewed two women in their 80s who remember when the Jews were pushed into the ghetto and the gendarmes roughly leading women and children to the train station.

Johnny told us that he sees the city in 3-D. When he recalls the history of Sighet, he can see the synagogue and yeshiva buildings. The Jews, he says, are the missing piece of the puzzle that is Sighet. Only about 80 Jews live there now.

We returned to the cemetery where I could leave Felix to film and I could roam. I found one gravestone from someone who died in 1935. Below, his family had added 5 people who had died in Auschwitz. Then I moved on to my great grandfather Aaron’s grave.

Finally, we returned to the train tracks. The first time we went, it was a night vigil. Rows of candles lined the tracks, a survivor told his story in Yiddish, and we sang. This time I was alone. Not literally as Felix was filming and people were waiting for the train. But alone.


Once we raised money, I asked Felix to come and film. I wanted to bring someone who is talented and creative, but also someone who understands my process and could appreciate the complexity of the shoot as it combined the personal, emotional and professional.

Then I paused and asked my dad, “Will it be strange that he is German?” He told me not to over think it. So of course I asked Felix, “How do you feel about coming?” As you know, the answer was yes.

I reread Elie Wiesel’s Night and asked him to as well. Elie Wiesel is the most famous descendant from Sighet, but this film will not tell his story.

So amidst my journey of family history, connections, reunion, sorrow, and work, was Felix’s journey. For some reason, it has been easier to write about his than mine.

In school, Felix was steeped in Holocaust history. What is most interesting to me is that in Stuttgart, where he grew up, he didn’t know any Jews. So the history was there, but not the people. Now he was thrown not only into a Jewish community, but a community who came to honor a painful past that he is connected to, though not responsible for.

I am not Felix and I don’t know exactly how he feels, but based on our conversations and the ones he had with my parents, I know it was an emotional and intellectual journey for him too. But I am not in his head, so what I tell you here are my experiences of having him there.

On our first day, on a bus tour of the region, we pulled people aside for short interviews. 75% of the people there were from Israel so I did a lot of interviews in Hebrew. I only understood some. When we interviewed one woman, she said she was going to tell us what her Abba always said. Then she raised her fist, and said “Revenge, " and continued to speak in Hebrew. As I heard her pain, I also thought of the person behind me.

I wasn’t going to tell him. I felt uncomfortable and at the exact same time he said he didn’t need to know and he didn’t want it to affect his work. A couple hours later, he asked again. “I assumed she was talking about me,” he said. So I told him. Felix and I were not alive during the Holocaust; we are not perpetrators or victims. But it is our inheritance.

On that same bus ride, another woman told me stories and cried. She also asked about Felix. It was only a couple hours into our time in Sighet. I told her that he was a thoughtful person and that if she had questions about his feelings about being here that she should ask him. She told me she wasn’t sure she was ready. I know that many people carry the Holocaust deep inside them, but I hadn’t realized until then how present it is for some people, how continuously painful and sometimes paralyzing. Her pain at that moment prevented her from talking to a young German man. Perhaps her pain simply prevented her from talking in general about this moment and her feelings. But all of our conversations left her on the edge of tears. I would soon get there.

Throughout the week, some people thought Felix was Jewish, some weren’t sure, others knew. Several asked me how he was feeling; others said that they had talked with their family about his experience.

The official head of the Sighet Jewish community, Mr. Marcus, told us that he doesn’t like to speak German because of what they did to the Jews. So when he asked me where Felix was from I said, “So Felix, where are you from?” He easily replied Stuttgart and there was no animosity from Mr. Marcus. Maybe another moment when I worried too much.

After we finished our interview with a Holocaust survivor, he disappeared quickly and I thought it was because he was upset. I cried because of what I had just heard and because I wondered what he had just heard. Then he appeared, fine. Another moment when I worried too much perhaps. Neither of us, at that time, was ready to talk about the interview. Sometimes there is too much and nothing to say.

There were many amazing moments. Felix driving nine members of the Blank family to the cemetery and then filming the story of our past. Felix, with my Dad, at Friday night Shabbat services. Felix sitting at Shabbat dinner with my family. The moment that night at the train tracks where he understood the speech of the Holocaust survivor in Yiddish that I had missed. His connection and talks with my parents, and our conversations about this film and especially about my journey.

And the above photo, which, in one image, defines my time in Sighet.


I got back to Cape Town on Friday afternoon, I tried to write this on Sunday – perhaps I just needed to rest -- but 3 days later I am finally ready. I haven’t watched any of the footage yet, or translated it, and I can guarantee you that more stories will come. Because while the journey to Sighet is done, the journey of telling the story is just beginning.

Thank you to everyone who donated to make this shoot possible. I am very excited about what will come next. The next phase will be editing a trailer to raise additional funds. As the story develops, I hope to do one or two additional shoots as I begin to edit the film.

If you are interested in contributing to the film, checks can be made payable to the Institute for Educational Leadership. In the memo part, please write Sighet Commemoration Project. Please also write this on the outside of the envelope. If you are outside of the U.S., please contact me at

If you have suggestions of people who might be interested in helping to fund the film, please let me know. You can also refer them to my website to view my previous work.

Please mail checks to:

Eileen Fox
Institute for Educational Leadership 
4301 Connecticut Ave, NW
Suite 100
Washington, DC 20008

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dispatch: In Class With Future Teachers

Since the schools project is finished, many of you have asked me “What’s next?”

This year is the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews from the village in Romania where my grandfather is from. It is also the town that Elie Wiesel is from. In May, the town is having a memorial weekend. People from across the world will be there, including a few Holocaust survivors. I want to make a short film that chronicles what happens over the weekend – talking to people about their memories and why they made the trip and telling the story of how a community celebrates and honors a difficult history. It will also be a personal story about my experience of the weekend and reflections about family and history and where that leaves me today.

I am trying to raise $10,000 for the filming and to edit a short clip that I can use to raise additional funds. If you know of any organizations or individuals who would be interested in supporting this project, please let me know. 

Ideally, this would be the first step in making a longer and broader documentary.


And now on to the latest Dispatch.

The first time I screen any of my films is always powerful. There are so many unknowns. How will people respond? Which moments or ideas will resound with them the most? And which might upset them or spark debate? How will different people experience the videos? And in the most recent screenings, will they impact their future? That was part of the conversation at the University of Fort Hare last week in East London in the Eastern Cape.

There is a book called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. I thought about that book when I saw students at Fort Hare sitting separately. In a classroom of 80 students, the white ones were sitting on one side of the room. In another class, there was a smattering of white students amidst the others – which on some unconscious level made me happy. I think about where this separation comes from and what experiences they have had that bring them into that space.

Why do people sit where they do? What does it say about their comfort levels with each other and the way they grew up? I wonder and watch how different racial groups respond to my videos –course on deeper reflection, these responses are far more based on past experience, not on race. There are many scenes in the videos of students eating food, cooked by women from the community. Some are eating with rulers, the backs of cell phones or hands.

Every time this scene came up, the room would fill with laughter. The black students were laughing and the white students were silent. I think the laughter comes from seeing something that is familiar – and the silence comes from surprise, this may be the first time they are seeing this, realizing what school is like for most of their classmates. It isn’t actually about white or black.

Over the week, I started to wonder why I always analyze these things.

Coincidentally, I just had a meeting with a professor who works on race and I got the chance to think about this. As an American I sometimes see race as a proxy for progress and transformation – I look at interaction between races here as a test of how far the South Africa has come since 1994.

I not only notice the separation, but also interaction. I have done a lot of work at the University of the Free State, a historically Afrikaans campus that has undergone major transformation in the last several years. When my cameraman and I go around filming, we are always looking for black and white students sitting together or talking to each other so we can film “transformation.”

Of course I never ask the students questions and I imagine they are not even analyzing their behavior. Do they need to be? Do they have the space to?

Regardless of class, race or seating arrangement, we always have dynamic discussions. I can only share highlights and moments.

Someone asked me, “How do we mold them?” This is not mold like a robot, but shape them into active and thoughtful citizens.

Some were calls to action:

“As future teachers we must think of our own discipline and model, we can’t be late or underprepared. We can’t expect students to do this if we don’t.”

“If we teach kids in grade 1, we need to remember that we are teaching them and trying to get them to grade twelve, not just through the grade we are teaching. We must always think about our power as teachers.”

“We need to push students telepathically and academically.”

This last comment reminds me of a teacher in Limpopo who told me about the importance of the hidden curriculum in addition to the formal curriculum in class.

And then, we got here. “I noticed that the girl in the video spoke very good English,” said one student.

I don’t know if my face registered my shock. I started to answer, but I wasn’t doing a very good job and realized most of the students in the room speak English as a second language. So I asked them.

The first student said that the education system is inherently biased. He said that second language students are at a disadvantage and they are not able to succeed.

One agreed, rightly saying that students in more rural areas are less exposed to English.

But another classmate argued back, “I would respectfully like to respond to my colleague,” he said. “In the location, kids are not dumb, everyone is smart and as a teacher we need to show them the vision. We must teach English. We can’t dwell on kids not speaking English or put out ideas of dumb or smart, we need to push them.”

Six screenings over two days left me exhausted, but one professor brought it all together.

“This is showing what we have been theorizing, teachers with power, as a national builder. These clips show the power and authority that you have as teachers. It all depends on how we use that power. We have the power to build, but sometimes we destroy it. Today we say how to use our power to build a nation. At the first lecture I said, “What are you bringing into the profession?” There were lots of sad stories. But this tells us the positive capital that you bring. We want to build a nation of stories. The message is that these schools CAN. You are one of the important tools to make them CAN.”

I am amazed and honored to play a small part in this.


It turns out I am unable to sell the book directly. For now, you can purchase it at

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dispatch: Can We Fix South Africa's Schools?

Happy 2014!

After two years of work – and several dispatches about the journey -  my book and video series How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work has finally been published. I can’t take all the credit, it was co-authored by a university chancellor Jonathan Jansen.

As some of you may know, I visited 19 schools, some with 2221 students others with 600. Whether urban or rural, big or small, the one thing that these schools have in common is that they serve disadvantaged communities and have achieved academic success. These schools are doing well despite hunger, crowded classrooms, lack of toilets and other resources, and sometimes, unresponsive provincial governments.

In addition to telling the stories of these individuals and communities, I tried to understand why some schools just work. It is something that people all over the world are trying to understand. It is what many of you on this dispatch list work to understand every day.

So what are the key strategies? Can these models be replicated? How do we teach principals to be better and more inspirational leaders, make teachers stronger, and urge students to look to the future? One goal of the book is to try to answer these questions. The title of the book is ambitious, but we have to start somewhere.

“There is no recipe for success,” one principal in Soweto told me. It can be simple – good leaders who hold teachers accountable.

I saw a series of factors -- good teaching, extra classes, continuous assessment, and engaging parents. Check, check, check, check.  But it was the essence of the schools, their individual stories that told me more.

And I found that what is revolutionary is sometimes obvious. One principal told me that the main reason her school works is because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they are teaching. The question we should ask is why is this not the norm.

On paper we have policies and we build education systems. Sometimes they work, often they don’t. We use statistics to assess schools, examine progress. We debate about public vs. private vs. charter vs. community schools; about who should be in the classroom and so many other questions, too many to count. But in this whole dialogue, we don’t often hear the voices of those who are in the schools.

And the voices I heard told me stories of schools that shift the paradigm.

I met determined and resilient young people who arrive at school at 7:00 am for mandatory study – and at one school, they arrive at 6:00 am for mandatory class in Romeo & Juliet taught by the principal!

I met teachers who implement concrete strategies and get students to perform calculus with the same energy and love as Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And I talked to committed principals who lead with a philosophy and vision that is felt throughout the school. These men and women fight and sacrifice for their students because they know what’s at stake.

I know we would like all teachers and principals to be like this and all students to be so engaged. We have to remind ourselves that at any great school and at any struggling schools, regardless of how wealthy or poor it may be, there are students who work hard and others who don’t care so much.

At the schools that I visited, principals recognize the obstacles in front of them, but say they just work hard with what they have. Despite bumps in the road and overwhelming challenges, leaders find a way to move forward. Some do this by empowering teachers to be agents of change, others use a combination of love and discipline to make school feel like home, others regularly adapt strategies in order to help students achieve.

In South Africa, all grade 12 students are required to take a series of exams, called matric, in order to pass school. The schools I visited have high total pass rates on these exams – sometimes up to 95  to 100% of students pass. But the question remains, are these students getting good enough results to study further? These principals know that a basic pass won’t take their students very far. Especially when the bar is set so low. You only have to get 35% to pass the matric exams in South Africa. Most universities require an exemption pass -- at least 50-60%.

So all of these principals are aiming for the real prize -- 100% quality passes that ensure further education, better jobs and more hopeful futures for their students. Last year, at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo province, 325 students qualified for university. This year there are 2,283 students at the school in grades 8 to 12.

The principal’s expectations flow down to students. They have been witness to the transformation in South Africa and 20 years after democracy, they are eager to contribute to it. It is not just the leaders, principals or teachers; it is the investment and the strength of these students who push one another.

All the students told me that education is the key to the future. They told me that they want to go to university, they want to be doctors and engineers and lawyers and teachers, but almost everyone also wants to provide for their family and plow back into their community in attempts to change the circumstances.

Their teachers hope to get them there.

So two thoughts:

Just imagine what could happen if we could harness the energy of these schools and spread it across South Africa? How could we replicate the success of these schools to transform other schools in disadvantaged communities that also have limited resources, not only here but also elsewhere? What could that look like if we did the same thing in the U.S.? I know some schools already are.

And perhaps a more exciting idea, given the current success of these schools that work with only a few resources, just imagine what they could do if they were given access to all the resources that are available. Imagine if every student at those schools had all doors open to them. What it would it look like to level the playing field?

I have seen diverse school communities, each with their own stories, but all moving towards the same goal. Teachers who understand how to nurture student potential, and who extend themselves as counselors and parents, as well as educators. Principals who work tirelessly to maintain effective institutions so that teaching and learning can run the way they are supposed to, all with a single focus that their students find a place in the outside world. Finally students with goals, who want to be active members of the new South Africa and transform their community and country.

They know what matters. But I think it is when we all decide that this should matter that the real change begins.


How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools That Work is now available. The book includes all 19 videos. You can learn more  read about the book and watch a few of the videos at my new website My TedX talk, which some of you may have seen, is also there.

On Amazon: The digital version of the book is now available on Amazon. The book will not be in stock on Amazon for a few months.

How to Purchase the Actual Book:
If you would like to purchase the book, send me an email and I can work out a bulk order and send you one from South Africa.  Costs would be payable via check or PayPal.

Thanks to you all for reading these dispatches and going on this journey with me. I am now trying to get this book out into the world through screenings, reaching out to interested universities and organizations, and writing blogs and articles. If you have any ideas, please let me know.