Back to the future: making penpals

May 27, 2020 by  
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While many Holocaust survivors are feeling isolated right now, the Sydney Jewish Museum has launched a Pen Pal Project to connect students and Holocaust survivors with one another through letter-writing during these uncertain times.

The conversations that have unfolded between young and old are heart-warming, and the support that our elderly survivors have received from their new pen pals has brought many of them renewed purpose at a time when concerns about mental health in isolation are at the fore.

Before COVID-19 forced the Museum to temporarily close its doors, 40 Holocaust survivors would share their stories of survival and lessons from the Holocaust frequently with school students and museum visitors. Holocaust survivors established the Sydney Jewish Museum in 1992, and 28 years later, they are still the beating heart of the Museum.

At the point when non-essential services started closing and people were urged to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, our survivors had already been in self-imposed isolation for two weeks. With many school kids now learning from home, the Museum team saw the perfect opportunity to connect the younger generation with our survivors as pen pals. We assumed that receiving and sending an “old-fashioned” handwritten letter would be a new and novel way to fill the students’ leisure time.

The idea for the project was born out of a group chat with a Museum Educator and some year 8 mothers at her daughter’s school. Quickly the idea caught on, and within 24 hours 63 students from various schools in Sydney expressed their eagerness to connect with Holocaust survivors.

Ilana McCorquodale

Educator at the Sydney Jewish Musem Ilana McCorquodale told J-Wire: “I’d love to say that it was a well thought out, inspired initiative to create the pen pal project. There was deep concern for our volunteer Survivors who had been coming weekly to speak to school students some of them for over 25 years. Our concern lay with how they were going to cope with the isolation.

Someone had suggested to my manager, Rebecca Kummerfeld, that perhaps those of us with school-aged kids might have our kids to write to them?

Rebecca asked me if it was something I’d like to take on – and that is how the pen pal project transpired.

The following week was Pesach, and I was frantic at the thought the Survivors would be all alone during this important time. During the war, Jewish holidays were chosen for key deportations, and my late father, who was a Holocaust Survivor, always lit a Yahrzeit candle for his father at Pesach.

It became very important to me that they all receive a letter from their new pen-friends before Pesach.

I sent out a brief WhatsApp message to the parents at my kids school ‘would anyone have children, or know of any kids, who would like to become pen-pals with our volunteer survivors as they are home alone in self isolation?’

My message was forwarded to parents in other year groups. And then to parents of children in other schools. And literally overnight I had 60 children wanting to correspond to Survivors in isolation.

From politics to Holocaust remembrance, young pen pals have written the most mature and inquisitive insights to their new friends…”



And in return, the survivors have offered poignant reflections and valuable life lessons in this time…

Watching friendships blossom between pen pals in the face of social isolation and physical distancing brings excitement for when restrictions are lifted. We look forward to a time when these unlikely new friends can finally meet.

Report from Ilana Heller,  Sydney Jewish Museum

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