As a Holocaust survivor, Hedy Bohm has shared painful memories with thousands of teens. Now, a group of Toronto-area students has shared something special with her: A night at their prom.
“I felt joy at being able to accept,” Bohm said. “And very honoured that they wanted me there.”
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Bohm was the guest of honour at Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute’s prom on Monday evening at the downtown Liberty Grand entertainment venue. There, the 86-year-old moved with apparent ease among the 175 Grade 12 students, albeit in sensible shoes and not the teetering heels worn by some of the students.
Many of the graduates first met Bohm during a field trip to the Holocaust Education Centre in Toronto. For the past eight years Bohm has recounted her story there, sharing in vivid, painful detail how her life in Hungary turned upside down in 1944.
Within weeks, she went from being a normal teenager to being shipped with her parents to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Both her parents died there.
“When Hedy speaks, I don't see a single electronic device come out,” said Tania Camuti, a teacher at Birchmount who regularly leads school trips to the Holocaust Centre. “Everybody sits there silently and listens.”
After hearing Bohm speak last December, Camuti and her class were discussing the fact that Bohm would have never experienced key events like a prom or graduation. That realization prompted one student to speak up with an idea.
'I just blurted out 'I want to take Hedy to the prom. I want to 'prompose' to her'' - Rowan Kelly, Grade 12 student
“I just blurted out ‘I want to take Hedy to the prom,’” said Rowan Kelly, a Grade 12 student at Birchmount. “‘I want to 'prompose' to her.’”
Camuti said she initially considered the suggestion a “crazy, random idea.” But she quickly warmed to it.
“I thought ‘Why shut him down if he has this idea? Let’s roll with it,’” she said. “Worst case, it doesn’t work out. Best case, Hedy’s coming to prom.”
Kelly's initial idea quickly turned into a wider effort. When the second semester class went to hear Bohm speak, they came armed with a potted daisy, an invitation and an understanding that the grandmother might not be keen to accept.
Not Bohm. She didn't hesitate to say yes.
Bohm arrived at the prom with Camuti and was promptly greeted by students, given a corsage, and ushered into the photo booth for group pictures. She smiled gamely as the students crowded in around her, alternating between smiles and silly faces.
Several students said they could relate to Bohm because she had described herself as an average teenager who loved literature, gym and dance, but was a “mediocre student.”
“You feel you could have been in the same situation,” said Brigitte Donaghy, 18.
“She starts her story with ‘I woke up in the morning. I went to school.’ It’s just an everyday thing for her and then it took a terrible turn.”
And would Bohm relate to the musical styles of the average 2014 prom-goer? Donaghy seemed to think so.
“I think she’s kind of a pop girl. She’s very young at heart.”
Actually, Bohm says she's more of a Chopin kind of girl. But while she politely demurred when invited to hit the dance floor for some numbers, Bohm could be seen on the sidelines tapping her feet as the students danced to a very loud thumping beat.
And Bohm did get one special dance. She waltzed with Rowan Kelly to Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.
So how did it go?
“The dance? I guess we should have practised a little bit,” she said. Still, she added, "It was nice."
The students had one more surprise for Bohm: a small book containing photos and messages telling her how happy they were to have her at their prom.
The gesture was born from Bohm's presentation to the class back in December. In it she had mentioned a small leather book containing drawings and notes from friends, family and her parents. Aside from photos, it was all that she had left of many of them.
It's a treasured keepsake and a powerful symbol that resonates with many of the students who hear her story.
"It touches people," Bohm said. "It reminds them of themselves. And sensitive people, they respond with feeling."