Young Holocaust activist dies at 26
Posted by Susan Harrison Wolffis November 05, 2007 11:20AM
In Hebrew, her name meant "Joyous Song."
Gilana Alpert. But it was more than a name.
It was a legacy that followed Gilana Shira Alpert wherever she went -- whether she was on stage or television, in the classroom or at Temple B'Nai Israel in Muskegon where she worshipped as the oldest of Rabbi Alan and Anna Alpert's three children.
But on Sunday afternoon, her voice and life were suddenly silenced.
Alpert, 26, died after suffering a series of strokes caused by what doctors believe was a rare reaction to medication she was taking for chronically severe migraine headaches.
Alpert, who was living and working in Chicago, was found Thursday by her landlord after co-workers became alarmed when she didn't arrive at work. Doctors and family members theorize that she fell and sustained a serious head injury in her apartment when she had the reaction to the medicine. She never regained consciousness.
Her family donated her organs; recipients were in Chicago, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Before doctors began the organ "harvest," as the medical procedure is called, the Alperts, several close family friends and medical personnel held a private religious service in her hospital room Sunday afternoon. A nurse carried notes of love and faith on behalf of the family into the operating room.
The Alperts have been "overwhelmed" by people's acts of kindness, they said.
"When we see such an outpouring of love, we are seeing God's work," Anna Alpert said.
Gilana Alpert, who majored in theater and minored in human sexuality at Indiana University, was going to start in graduate school this year.
"Gilana wasn't a bystander in life," her mother, Anna Alpert, said Sunday night. "When she found something she believed in, she said: 'I'm doing something about it.' "
It was that very spirit that thrust Gilana Alpert into the international spotlight in 1995 when she was named to a television news reporting team to cover the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- the largest of the Nazis' death and labor camps.
She was 13 years old at the time and an eighth-grader at Mona Shores Middle School. She had just finished her bat mitzvah, the Jewish "coming of age" ceremony during which time she read from the V'Ahavtah, a chapter in the Torah or holy book.
"It says to teach God's words through your children," she said.
Gilana Alpert was the only student on the team of reporters for Channel One, an in-school international news program broadcast by satellite into thousands of classrooms everyday.
She responded to an on-air request from Channel One producers that asked students to call if anyone in their families had perished in Auschwitz. At least 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were killed at Auschwitz before the Soviet Red Army liberated the survivors.
Nine of Gilana Alpert's family members died or disappeared in various labor and death camps during World War II, including a great aunt and cousin at Auschwitz.
"I don't know how to say this really," she said after returning from Auschwitz in 1995, "but being there, it felt like it connected me with all my family who died."
Later that same year, the Muskegon girl was chosen by Channel One to present filmmaker Steven Spielberg with a special award for his work as founder and chairman of The Survivors of The Shoah (Holocaust) Visual History Foundation.
In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation, she reminisced about her visit -- and her motivation for wanting to face such horror at such a young age.
"When I was little, my grandmother (who survived a series of labor camps) wouldn't talk about what happened," Gilana Alpert said. "She used to say: 'It's over. We're moving on.' Her stories were lost to silence. I couldn't let that happen."
Hers is one of the family histories chronicled and saved at the Muskegon County Museum. In 2005, she and her mother teamed up to direct a play set during the Holocaust during the Jewish-Christian Dialogue.
As a high school student, she chaired the Youth Advisory Council at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and performed for Western Michigan's Cherry County Playhouse, Muskegon Civic Theatre and its Repertory Touring Company, and Central Park Players in Grand Haven.
The news of her death began to spread throughout Muskegon in faith communities of every denomination.
"All over town this weekend, the Alperts have been lifted in prayer," said the Rev. Don Mathews, a retired Presbyterian minister. He co-chaired the community's Christian-Jewish Dialogue with Rabbi Alpert, who has been rabbi at Temple B'Nai Israel since 1976.
"The whole family has been such a blessing to this community. One of the comments I've heard is that Gilana is a daughter not only of the (B'nai Israel) congregation; she's a daughter of the whole community."
Besides her parents, Gilana Alpert is survived by her sister, Aleza Alpert, who is student teaching in East Lansing and her brother, David Alpert, who is a freelance director in New York City.
A memorial service is tentatively set for Sunday in Muskegon, although a time and place have not yet been determined. She will be buried in Los Angeles near her grandparents following a service midweek.
Gilana, you will be missed by all who met you. I'm a better person for have knowing you. May there be turtle races everyday where you're at. xoxo, Mike