The 24 students completing eighth grade at Atlanta Jewish Academy on Wednesday, May 24, didn’t start summer vacation with the usual graduation mix of praise and hope.

Those elements were part of their recognition ceremony — the caps, gowns, pomp and circumstance without the vocabulary of a graduation because AJA doesn’t end at eighth grade — but Holocaust survivor Martin Lowenberg made sure the students understood their place in Jewish history 72 years after he was liberated from his fifth Nazi camp as an orphaned 17-year-old.

Jared Amdur (left) and Samuel Brenner enjoy listening to faculty members speak about other members of their eighth-grade class at AJA after they had their turns.

Lowenberg, a family friend of eighth-grader Simmy Wilson’s who flew in for the occasion from Detroit, did offer best wishes to the class but also provided a history lesson.

He took the students back to the Exodus and the start of the mezuzah as a sign on Jewish doorposts. “It is something of our Jewish heritage that we should never, ever forget, and we should adore that with love.”

He connected that symbol of the end of a time when we were slaves making bricks and mortar with his final three weeks as slave labor for the Nazis, using his hands to rub mortar off bricks from damaged buildings in Kiel, Germany, in 1945 so they could be reused.

“I was a damn Jew. I was a dirty Jew. I did not graduate like you did. I did not wear the gowns that you do. I suffered,” Lowenberg told the students. He said he weighed 74 pounds when he was liberated.

“As soon as freedom rang again, I was not just thrilled, but I was overcome with joy that I could kiss that mezuzah,” he said.

He noted that Jews had no menorahs in the Nazi camps and that you still can see marks on doorposts in Poland and other European countries indicating where mezuzahs once hung and thus where Jews once lived.

“You should always remember that the mezuzah is the one that keeps us strong. That is our life. That is our heritage,” Lowenberg said.

To help AJA students remember and be proud of their Judaism, he crafted a mezuzah that will hang on the doorpost between the old AJA facility on Northland Drive and the new construction that will house the Upper School starting in the fall.

The mezuzah is mounted on a piece of wood from a railcar that transported Jews to death camps. On the front is the AJA logo surrounded with stars. “These stars are you,” Lowenberg told the students. “You are the best that this school has, and every student that is coming after you and before you.”

Class of 2017

Jolie Abadi
Jared Amdur
Gefen Beldie
Samuel Brenner
Daniel Chasen
Noah Chen
Mikhael Covitz
Katherine Cranman
Deena Glusman
Raina Grosswald
Ryan Helland
Matthew Kaplan
Paulina Lebowitz
Rebecca Lewyn
Matthew Minsk
Daniel Mordoch
Ashira Rabinowitz
Wade Rabinowitz
Samuel Rubin
Shayna Shapiro
Barbara Sloan
Eden Vainer
Gabriel Weiss
Simeon Wilson