Gavin Jacob Kaplan may be a young man of few words, but he has dedicated himself and his recent bar mitzvah project to making sure the tragic story of a young Holocaust victim is never forgotten.
Gavin, 13, and his family live in Riviera Beach in Anne Arundel County and attend Beth El Congregation, where Gavin studied for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Steven Schwartz.
Last summer, as his study for his bar mitzvah approached, Gavin’s dad Greg and his grandmother Marsye, of Owings Mills, began working with him on what kind of meaningful project he might take up for his special day.
“Because of where he lived, he didn’t attend Hebrew school on a regular basis in his later years,” said Marsye. “As he was preparing for the bar mitzvah I said that most of the kids do a mitzvah project and I explained about finding a charity or finding something that you’re interested in.”
Gavin, it turns out, is interested in space and ecology and began searching for a project that would not only have meaning for him but would also give back to the community and make the world a better place.
Marsye remembered a project she had seen at a Beth El b’nai mitzvah service years before, called Twinning, and thought Gavin might be interested. Twinning involves a young person researching the story of another young person who had died in the Holocaust and presenting their story.
In January, Gavin connected with Holocaust survivor Ruth Cohen at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. during a school trip.
“We saw her at the museum,” Gavin said about Cohen, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia and a museum volunteer. He stood in line and got a chance to sit and chat with Cohen, a survivor of Auschwitz and two other concentration camps. She was also a member of Beth El, who used to run the Twinning program there.
“It was so beshert that this happened,” Marsye said. So Gavin later connected with a program called Remember A Child, through Generation After, Inc., of Washington, D.C., which matches children of the Holocaust with b’nai mitzvah students.
Gavin asked to be matched with a child from Russia or Poland, where Gavin’s ancestors came from. Marsye supplied Generation After staff with the Kaplan ancestral family names, including Kaplan, Adler, Wolf, Levitan, Zelden, Polski, Holcomb and Hirt.
A day later, Gavin was matched with a child.
“Shlomo Gershon Kaplan,” Gavin said with pride. “He was born right near the border of Poland and Lithuania, in Suwalky, Poland. His family was sent to the Lublin ghetto,” where they were murdered.
The documents sent to Gavin about Shlomo included photos of him and his family. And, although the Kaplans aren’t sure Gavin and Shlomo are related, besides by name, the photos show a striking resemblance.
“Our family name is Kaplan and my husband’s Hebrew name is Gershon,” Marsye said, drawing even closer ties to the lost boy Gavin was “twinned” with, while he found that other family names overlapped with Shlomo’s family.
“So all these pieces kept coming together,” Marsye said. “We’re going to do some genealogy research to see if there is a family [connection.]”
At his bar mitzvah Gavin said the mourner’s kaddish in honor and memory of Shlomo Gershon Kaplan.
“I was shocked and really upset about what the Nazis did,” Gavin said, adding that he spoke about Shlomo in his bar mitzvah speech.
“I decided to share my bar mitzvah by ‘Twinning,’” Gavin said in the speech. “I was not alone this evening. Shlomo Gershon Kaplan grew up in Poland during the Holocaust but could not have a bar mitzvah, since he died before the Jews were freed from Hitler’s grasp. I shared my bar mitzvah with him. It is sad that he was not able to have a bar mitzvah, but I will always remember him and keep his memory alive.”
Gavin’s mitzvah project included a display after the bar mitzvah, with photos of Shlomo’s family and documents detailing their lives, plus a “Scroll of Remembrance” from Generation After.
“I have met a lot of kids over the years and I’ve never met kid who decided to do something like this before,” said Gavin’s father Greg. “It was very impressive that he was that much in touch with the horror of what happened and to remember someone that didn’t have a chance to do what he is doing.”
For Gavin, his mitzvah project was more than just an obligation, it was something that affected him and from which he learned and hopes to carry on.
“To remember the children that died in the Holocaust,” he said.
For more information, go to genafterdc.com/remember-a-child/overview.