Remembering the Holocaust, and Overseer Emerita Judith Isaacson, with a Bowdoin Garden

  • The Daffodil Garden dedication, April 23, 2017

On the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), April 23, a group of almost 50 people gathered on the Bowdoin campus to dedicate a new daffodil garden planted in the memory of the 1.5 million children who died in the Nazi death camps. The garden is Bowdoin’s contribution to the Daffodil Project, a worldwide effort to plant one daffodil for each child who died.

Last fall, a somewhat smaller group of Bowdoin students, staff, faculty and community members came together for a planting ceremony led by Rabbi Erica Asch, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, and student members of the Bowdoin Hillel. Each participant shared the name and story of a child killed in the Holocaust and planted a bulb in the child’s honor. Later that month facilities staff planted the rest of the 1,000 daffodil bulbs in the garden behind the Student Center for Multicultural Life at 30 College Street.

Sunday’s garden ceremony and Yom HaShoah service, held on a warm spring day as the daffodil leaves poked up from the ground, was a chance to dedicate the garden and honor Judith Magyar Isaacson, Bowdoin overseer emerita, a Hungarian-Jewish American educator, and Auschwitz survivor who settled in Maine after marrying Irving Isaacson, a native of Auburn/Lewiston.

Isaacson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bates College in 1965 after her three children were grown and, a few years later, became one of the first women to earn a master’s degree in mathematics from Bowdoin College. Isaacson taught math at Lewiston High School for many years, and later became Bates’ first computer science teacher and its first dean of students. She served on the Bowdoin College Board of Overseers from 1984 to 1996. In 1990, she published her memoir, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor, and much of the later part of her life was dedicated to making her story of survival during the Holocaust known — and in doing so remembering the millions of others who were killed in the Holocaust.

When Danny Shapiro ’83 learned the news of Judith’s death, it was his idea to both honor Isaacson and introduce the Daffodil Project to Bowdoin. Shapiro, his wife Nadine Becker (who is a board member of the organization promoting the Daffodil Project), and Sari and Olen Earl P’20 provided the support for the garden.

While a student at Bowdoin, Shapiro had invited Isaacson to speak on campus, an event that attracted a large crowd. “Judith was amazing and uplifting. The evening was transformative for me,” he wrote in an email. “It made me really think about how human beings survive unspeakable cruelty and still keep themselves emotionally intact.”

Students from Bowdoin Hillel and Hillel advisors Anne Clifford and economics professor Rachel Connelly, Rabbi Asch and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, as well as Bowdoin faculty and staff, friends of Bowdoin, and Isaacson’s family and friends attended the garden event.

Isaacson’s husband, Irving — who is 103 — attended with his daughter, Ilona Bell, a Williams College professor, and his son, Mark Isaacson, who is the parent of Noah Isaacson ‘11. Also in attendance was Rosalyne “Roz” Bernstein H’97, P’77, and a trustee emerita. Accompanying Roz were her son, Andy Bernstein ’77 and his wife, Karla Krassner Bernstein ’79.

Hillel student leaders, Carly Berlin ’18 and Nicole Sadowsky ’17 welcomed the attendees before Rabbi Asch and Rabbi Isaacs led the Yom HaShoah service. Berlin said that as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Yom Hashoah is always a meaningful day for her. “This year, joining with so many members of the Bowdoin community — students and alums and faculty — to celebrate the life of Judith Isaacson and the Daffodil Project made the event particularly special,” she added.

Sadowsky said that every time she hears Isaacson’s story, she is reminded of the woman’s great strength and resilience. “As a senior about to graduate from Bowdoin, her story inspired me to think about each individual’s responsibility to make the world a better place,” she said. “By sharing her story with the world, she has truly helped to ensure that the Holocaust will neither be forgotten nor occur again.”

After the service ended with everyone in attendance placing a cut daffodil in one of six jars to represent the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster offered a few words of welcome. “Yom HaShoah’s full official name is ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, and we should not lose sight of the heroism portion of the name,” Foster said, adding, “A vital reason for our coming together today is to honor the spirit of resistance in the face of violence and oppression that the Holocaust could not extinguish.” Nadine Becker then spoke about the goals of the Daffodil Project and thanked Bowdoin for its participation.

Finally, George Isaacson ’70, P’08,’10, senior partner at the law firm Brann and Isaacson and senior lecturer at Bowdoin, and a distant cousin to Irving Isaacson, briefly told Judith’s story of survival, of meeting Irving (who was a captain in the US Army stationed in Germany as the war ended), of moving to Maine and of finding joy in life.

George Isaacson also told the story of Judith’s visit to Bowdoin campus in the late 1970s, and how the students’ interest in her story inspired her to write Seed of Sarah. Closing his remarks, George read a letter that Judith – known as Judtka – had written from Germany to her future in-laws in Maine shortly after she and Irving had married. It demonstrated Judith’s eagerness to embrace family and begin a new life.

Photos by Dennis Griggs

  • Irving Isaacson
  • George Isaacson
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