Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Student and teacher reunite after more than 50 years
August 28th, 2008
Dorathea Pinko teaches a group of immigrant children in the summer of 1952. Photo from the Aug. 22, 1952, edition of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.
Gitel Benzman’s first English word was “push.” A 5-year-old immigrant who was born in a displaced persons camp in Berlin, Benzman and nine other children, learned the word as they flew through the air on a swing set in Juneau Park in July 1952.
The children were chosen to participate in a kindergarten preparation class financed by the Refuge Committee of the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund (now named the Milwaukee Jewish Federation) and conducted by the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Family and Children’s Service.
The summer program was certainly transformative for the children, all of whose parents were Holocaust survivors. But it was also life-changing for their young teacher, Dorathea Pinko, who has spent years since looking for her former students.
Gale Sussman (second from left) is reunited in December 2007 with her former teacher Dorathea Polsky (left). They are joined by Polsky’s sister Rachel Mishlove (third from left) and cousin Dorothy Zander.
In February 2007, Pinko, renamed Dorathea Polsky, found Benzman, renamed Gale Sussman, through Generation After, the Milwaukee organization for descendents of Holocaust survivors that Sussman co-founded with Sandy Hoffman.
“Sandy said, ‘Gale, someone really needs to talk to you,’” Sussman recalled. “I called [Polsky] and she said, ‘I’ve been looking for you for a long time.’”
And last December, more than a half century after those days on the swings, Sussman and Polsky met at a restaurant in Florida.
“It was just such a thrill,” said Polsky. “When we looked at each other, we were so amazed and thrilled and we hugged each other and held on to each other for five minutes.”
Sussman was eager to hear about the program. “I didn’t really remember that much but my mother did tell me about her…. The children must have left an impact on her for her to remember us after all these years.”
Polsky does remember those days. “I picked them up at a certain corner, Tenth and Locust, in taxi cabs…. Then we were taken to the Jewish Center on Prospect,” she recalled.
The schedule, composed by Polsky, consisted of coloring, reading, singing and, as with any kindergarten, naptime.
“If the weather was nice, I walked the children to the park,” said Polsky, who had been an elementary school teacher for four years.
“There would be other people from the neighborhood there, intrigued from meeting these children. I found neighbors to be helpful and friendly and the children just kept smiles on their faces and made friends easily.
“The class was about togetherness, learning the language and learning to get along with each other.”
“She not only taught us English, but the ways of American life, rules, and regulations,” Sussman said.
“We all thought the kids were brave and the parents were so brave to let these children go off with a stranger like me,” Polsky said.
Polsky recently heard from the sister of another former student and hopes to reconnect with him.
A student at Torah Academy of Milwaukee, Talia Lakritz was a Chronicle intern this summer.