Holocaust survivor Erna Gorman with FJA graduates Sidrah Kovan, Ilana Weinfeld, Tatum Partrich and Camryn Otis
Holocaust survivor Erna Gorman with FJA graduates Sidrah Kovan, Ilana Weinfeld, Tatum Partrich and Camryn Otis

On stage at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts this month, 58 newly minted alumnae from Frankel Jewish Academy’s Class of 2017 sat eagerly waiting for the evening’s final diploma to be awarded before tossing their mortarboards in the air.

Head of School Rabbi Azaryah Cohen described the unique circumstances faced by the night’s remaining graduate: “There are generations of Jews who experienced atrocities so vile that any element of humanity was quashed, but somehow found their ‘self’ rose to inspire future generations. We are privileged to have such a person here tonight.”

The 59th “senior” was an octogenarian who accompanied the students on their recent class trip to Poland and Israel, acting as a real-life link between a past they knew from history and modernity.

Gorman receives her honorary diploma from FJA Head of School Rabbi Azaryah Cohen

“This individual, who did not enjoy the luxury of a formal education, received an honorary doctorate even without receiving a high school diploma — until this evening,” Cohen said. “On behalf of our board of trustees, our faculty, staff and students, I would like to present Mrs. Erna Gorman with a Frankel Jewish Academy diploma.”

As the crowd rose to its feet, Gorman, 83, a Holocaust survivor and “hidden child,” accepted a diploma fate cruelly denied her from earning decades earlier.

“I was very young when I went through the Holocaust and after I had no opportunity to go to school,” Gorman explained. “I had to go to work and help earn money.”

Erna Gorman – Book Cover

Gorman and her family had been in Poland for an aunt’s wedding in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and WWII began, preventing the family from returning to their native France and landing them in one of the country’s notorious ghettos.

Eventually her family found an opportunity to escape and fled to Ukraine. They sought refuge on a farmer’s property, remaining hidden for more than two years. Following the Red Army’s liberation of Ukraine, her older sister was married off and her mother passed away. She and her father immigrated to Detroit in 1953.

Gorman went on to marry, raise two children and devote many years to Holocaust education. In 2009, she was awarded an honorary doctorate in education from Northern Michigan University. The following year, she wrote a well-received memoir of her experience as a hidden child.

Gorman joined the Class of 2017 on the Auschwitz-to-Birkenau March of the Living

This was Gorman’s fourth trip with a senior class. She was first approached in 2013 by Debbie Wrotslavsky, FJA’s then-director of professional development, to join the kids for the Auschwitz-to-Birkenau March of the Living.

“When we brought her to Poland that first year, it was so powerful,” Wrotslavsky said. “It got both the students and the staff to pay attention.”

That power has not faded with time. Graduates Nicholas Vieder and Ilana Weinfeld each noted how nurturing Gorman was.

“Her being there was strengthening to us all,” Veider said.

“She inspired all of us to become better individuals, as well as Jews,” Weinfeld added.

Graduate Tatum Partrich, founding editor of FJA’s new student newsmagazine, @FJA, marveled at Gorman’s vitality.

“Having Erna on the trip made the experience more meaningful, and her positive outlook on the world amazed me day after day,” Partrich said.

“For many, the hardest part about grasping the tragedy of the Holocaust is putting a face to those millions who experienced it,” she added. “Erna gave us a more in-depth understanding of the unimaginable.”

Ari Samuel Special to the Jewish News