Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Passion for history, faith turns into lifelong journey for Allen alum - Star Community Newspapers

Photos courtesy of Nancy Fine Albert -- At age 12, Allenite Zachary Albert raised $7,000 to bring a Czech Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust all the way from England to Texas for display at the Dallas Holocaust Museum. As seen in this photograph, he was able to bring the historic scroll home in time to read from it as part of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

History has always been important for Zachary Albert. By the time he was 13, he had raised more than $7,000 to secure a Holocaust-era Torah -- one that survived the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia -- for display in the Dallas Holocaust Museum.

Now, with a recently completed master's degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, the 24-year-old Allen High School graduate is ready to turn his passion into a career with a full-time job at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Zachary's interest in the Holocaust was sparked at age 12, when he began volunteering at the Dallas Holocaust Museum in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah.

"I just fell in love with the survivors, the community there at the Holocaust center and their mission," he said.

During his first year at the museum, Zachary noticed they did not have a Holocaust Torah scroll to display -- something the 12-year-old immediately took it upon himself to correct.

"I just felt that's just an important and tangible piece of the Holocaust, and in many ways these Torahs are also survivors," he said. "I felt that it would be a really nice artifact for the museum to have and for students to learn from."

From there, he learned about Westminster Synagogue in England, which houses a collection of 1,500 Torahs, mostly recovered from an abandoned Czech synagogue. The Torahs were being stored there by the Nazis, who were planning to create a museum for the "extinct" Jewish race after conquering Europe. They were found by an English art dealer years later and eventually found their way to Westminster, where they were stored or, if possible, repaired and sent to synagogues and museums all over the world.

A second-degree black belt, Zachary raised money for the Torah by hosting a "break-a-thon," where he would kick a wooden board in half for every donation he received. By the end of the day, he had broken 36 boards and raised $7,000 -- enough for the Torah, a plane ticket to London to pick up the priceless artifact and a donation to the Dallas Holocaust Museum.

Zachary was even able to bring home the Torah in time for his Bar Mitzvah. While Jewish tradition dictates that a kosher -- or pristine -- scroll must be read from as part of the ceremony, the tattered, war-torn Czech scroll was used instead as a means of honoring its history and significance to the Jewish people.

"I wanted to give the Torah a voice one last time before it was put into a museum," he said, "so I felt very honored to read from it during my Bar Mitzvah."

While Zachary's interest in his Jewish heritage, traditions and history strengthened as he entered high school, he became focused academically on medical studies, taking pre-med and EMT courses and aspiring to become an MD after college. He enrolled at Rhodes College as a pre-med religious studies major, but didn't begin to consider his fascination with Jewish history as a career option until a Holocaust travel seminar in May 2008 that saw him and several other students fly to Europe to visit actual Holocaust sites, including Auschwitz and the former synagogue -- now a church -- where the Torah he worked so hard to acquire had been found.

"I decided I shouldn't become a doctor; it's not really my calling," he said. "There are so many ways that somebody can help somebody, and it's not all physical. I can use my passion and my history to help people in other ways, and I might be able to do better things doing it that way."

After graduation, Zachary began graduate school at Brandeis. His master's thesis, "Exhibiting the Holocaust: Museum Tour Narratives as Presentations of Institutional Post-Holocaust American Identity," explores the ways in which American holocaust museums create their program material based on their artifacts. Zachary studied at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York for the project.

Before he starts work in Los Angeles, Zachary will travel to Poland with 10 other graduate students and Ph.D. candidates as an Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellow, where he will study Polish-Jewish relations during the 20th century.

"I'm really blessed to be able to go," he said. "I'm glad that I've been once before so the visceral reactions have already taken place. Hopefully this trip will be that second look, that deeper look at something I've only scratched the surface of."

In Los Angeles, Zachary will serve as education and public engagement coordinator for the museum. He will work with public, middle and high school students, aiding in Holocaust curriculum and coordinating student visits to the museum.

Zachary's mother, Nancy Fine Albert, said she and her husband are proud of both of their children -- their daughter, Zoe, started Faux Paws, a business selling faux-fur flip flops to raise money for charity, in 2006 -- and take pleasure in seeing them be able to follow their dreams and make a difference in the world.

"The Holocaust had a profound impact on the Jews of Europe, having wiped out six million souls," she said. "But, the Holocaust has a very 'universal message.' The world can be a very dangerous place when we don't stand up and speak out when we see intolerance and injustice. There is a Hebrew phrase, 'Tikkun Olam,' which means 'to repair the world.' I really think that is at the heart of Zach's motivation to share the lessons that must be learned from this dark period of history."

Zachary said that his generation may be the last to be able to meet a Holocaust survivor and hear their stories -- both those of unimaginable pain and suffering and those of heroism and strength. It is for this reason that he feels the responsibility to tell their stories -- in his words, to "be their voice after they're gone" and maybe even inspire others along the way.

"It's one of these very human stories, for better or for worse, and I think that in and of itself is worth studying, worth remembering and hopefully worth never repeating," he said, "so that's what I'm going to try to do in whatever humble way I can."

To watch a 2005 documentary about Zachary's work on the Holocaust Torah project, visit www.cultureunplugged.com/play/2745/Dancing-with-Torah.

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