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Music and remembrance bring Holocaust victims to life

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Those who attended the annual Pine River-Backus School Holocaust Project Fair on Thursday, March 6, received a special treat.

The eight-year tradition has always included informational and historical student displays of the Holocaust era, but this year the fair included a heartfelt speech by substitute teacher Alan Bohme.

Bohme told the story of his family’s struggle against anti-Semitism in Poland, where his father was born.

“(My father) was playing with the Polish boys. They said, ‘You, we kill last.’ Because they liked him. He played soccer,” Bohme said.

To help him cope with the horrors of living in this environment, Bohme’s grandmother traded two chickens for a quarter-sized violin. Being incredibly poor, his father had to teach himself to play by emulating gypsy style violin.

“For some reason, I don’t know if is genetic or whatever, he played beautifully. He played beautifully. He played at his own bar mitzvah,” Bohme said.

In approximately 1929, Bohme’s father came to the United States where he blended in despite language barriers and culture shock.

“He couldn’t believe we were so wealthy you could stand in line and get meat and soup (bread lines). In Poland everyone was starving,” Bohme said.

He made friends fast, and soon they, too, came to love his music. After approximately a year in the United States, Bohme’s grandmother traded two more chickens for a full-size violin for her son.

“Then my father took off. He played everything,” Bohme said. “You name it, he played it all self-taught and he was hired for jobs.”

To improve his chances of getting hired to play, Bohme’s father adopted the stage name David Romaine in honor of the Romaine Gypsies he emulated. He started a music group called David Romaine, his Violin and his Orchestra. His father also played with the Chicago Symphony during World War II. He was unable to fight because he had lost an eye in Poland.

Bohme’s father played the violin for 50 years and became well known for it. He played with his own band and with the Philharmonic of Chicago. His group produced albums called “It’s Just the Gypsy in my Soul” and “Just Leave a Tip.” They performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and played with famous musicians like Bing Crosby.

David Romaine Bohme’s history is significant, but his violin was also exceptional. The violin is more than 200 years old and made by a student of a famous Italian violin maker called Guarneri. Using this exceptional instrument, Pine River-Backus High School chemistry teacher Richard Larson played the theme from “Schindler’s List” and other songs last Friday. In honor of all his father’s violin stood for, Bohme gave it to Larson.

“It’s his to keep because he’ll play it, I won’t. I play the piano, flute and ukulele. I don’t play the violin,” Bohme said.

Bohme said it is important that the violin belongs to someone who will play it.

“One of the Jewish traditions is, when you visit a grave, you place a stone there. The stone means someone was there to visit you. You are still alive,” Bohme said. “So we’ve just kind of changed the tradition. I had 204 relatives in Europe before the war. After the war, I had two. Every time he plays this violin, not only is my father alive, but all my family is alive. We’re not using a stone, we’re using music. This is music of life. It’s called chai.”

With this powerful message, the Holocaust Project Fair was kicked off.

The fair featured many historical displays by eighth-grade students, including models of prison camps, World War II battles, Hitler’s bunker, photos of World War II era styles and traditional Jewish potato latkes that sold out in less than five minutes.

This project fair is an annual display by high school English teacher Lynn Wangberg’s eighth-grade students during the time that they begin to read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“I taught Anne Frank about 20 years. I realized teaching Anne Frank, these kids don’t know why Anne Frank and her family are in an attic for two years,” Wangberg said. “They don’t understand the dilemma. They don’t understand what happened in World War II. They don’t understand Adolph Hitler. That’s why I started to throw a little history in there. It’s become now where before we even start the play we do a two-week history of the Holocaust. History of anti-Semitism. History of stereotypes. We have a lot of background before we even start Anne Frank.”

Wangberg’s students choose and create their presentations at home. They use whatever research and materials they can find to produce ever-changing historical references. The effort they put into these presentations goes beyond rote learning, as students must devote themselves to the subject and get hands on.

“I learned a lot about the vehicles, the ones I made. I didn’t know a lot about them, so I did research. Now I know more about the battle and things that were used,” said Jonah Lawrence, who re-created a scene from the Battle of Stalingrad using Legos.

Misato Marcum chose to do her presentation on the Annex, where the Frank family lived in hiding.

“My grandma’s uncle lived in Amsterdam. He had a Jewish couple. A neighbor told on them and they had to move, but they didn’t get caught. So I thought it was a cool thing to do,” Marcum said.

After the project fair, Wangberg relates what students have learned about the past to the present.

“I try to connect it to what’s going on today. Kids don’t understand that in Darfur and other parts of the world there is genocide. There are horrible things going on, so I try to relate whatever their topic was to what’s going on today to bring it full force. The other thing is to make sure they realize one person can make a difference and the bad parts about history should not be repeated,” Wangberg said.

Travis Grimler can be reached at Follow him at and on Twitter @PEJ_Travis.