By Stephanie Smartschan
JFLV Director of Marketing
As a Jew serving in the American armed forces during World War II, Julian Stern was given a particularly gruesome assignment: to clean up the Ohrdruf concentration camp so that General Eisenhower and General Patton could walk through.
“He saw things that were so unimaginable,” his stepdaughter, Jaccii Farris, said. “I remember growing up as a little girl hearing that story and how he lost his faith and over time he kind of reconnected because he realized that faith is something that gets you through these tough times.”
It was this personal connection to the Holocaust that drew Farris to the story of Michelle Levy of Allentown, who, as a baby in hiding with her mother during the Holocaust, was separated from her grandparents and could only communicate through letters.
That story became “Letters to Frieda,” which aired on WFMZ this winter. It recently won the award for “Outstanding Documentary” from the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters and is in the running for an Emmy. Funds generated by the film have benefited the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s Holocaust Resource Center.
Farris is now working with her team, in collaboration with the Holocaust Resource Center, to bring the documentary and an accompanying curriculum into local public schools. She wants to show students that if you see somebody bullying somebody, “why it’s important that you stand up and say that’s not right.”
Because of her efforts, Farris will be honored by the Jewish Federation this year with the Mortimer S. Schiff Award for Prejudice Reduction. The award will be acknowledged at the golf tournament also named Schiff on Monday, June 15, at Lehigh Country Club. It will be formally presented the next evening, Tuesday, June 16, at the Federation’s Community Celebration and Annual Meeting.
Established in 1999 by Vera Schiff to honor her husband Mortimer’s memory, the Schiff award is given to members of the Lehigh Valley community who are committed to spreading and teaching tolerance by both word and action. Past recipients have included Holocaust survivor Julius Jacobs, the Rev. Dr. Peter Pettit and Ilene and Bob Wood.
“I was blown away really honestly because we just wanted to make a film to highlight the last generation of Holocaust survivors and how important it is,” Farris said upon hearing about the award. “We were focused on that, so this was a big surprise definitely.”
As a senior reporter and docujournalist for WFMZ-TV and president and founder of Julian Farris Films – named for her stepfather, of blessed memory – Farris had a long list of suggestions for topics to tackle, but “this one just stood out,” she said. “This is probably the most important thing that our film company has done.”
Farris and her team spent about eight months interviewing Levy and working on the film before it aired, and that work is still ongoing.
Levy was born in 1938, just weeks after Kristallnacht. With her mother Frieda, Levy escaped from her family’s home in Paris just before the city fell to the Nazis and went into hiding. Frieda’s parents in Germany could only connect with their daughter and yet unmet granddaughter through letters, which spoke of optimism and the hope of one day being reunited. But that would never happen.
Levy found Farris to be very sympathetic to her story and the plight of anti-Semitism and said the award for her is well-deserved.
“She’s just a lovely, lovely person and we became friends,” Levy said. “I kind of think of her as my other daughter.”
Farris hopes that students will connect with Levy’s story and understand the perils that discrimination can inflict.
“That’s really what this award is all about,” said Richard Schiff, Mortimer’s son and co-chair of the golf tournament. “It’s about honoring the people who are making these extraordinary efforts to combat hate and Jaccii truly exemplifies that.”
The Schiff Award will be presented at the Jewish Federation's Community Celebration and Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the JCC of Allentown. It is free and open to the public.