Still teaching life’s most important lessons

It’s been eight years since she left her Mechanicville classroom, but teacher Shelley Abelson is sti
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It’s been eight years since she left her Mechanicville classroom, but teacher Shelley Abelson is still aiding her students.

From her home in Niskayuna, Abelson was instrumental in helping a former student in a faraway place do something important.

She did that by helping raise money to pay for a Holocaust survivor to speak in the small Alaskan town of Moose Pass, population 300.

The March event was organized by one of her former seventh-grade students, Erin Knotek, who now lives in Alaska. Knotek visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., last year while

on vacation. It was then that she decided to bring a survivor to speak to her small community.

Knotek was eventually put in touch with well-known Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. The speaking fee was $3,000 for her to come to Alaska, the only state she hadn’t spoken in before.

“When we want something, we’re going to do it,” Knotek said. “The first person I asked said, ‘I’ll give you $1,000.’ ”

Knotek said that she remained committed to the project even though fundraising slowed after that first $1,000 donation.

Meanwhile, not knowing of her efforts, Abelson e-mailed Knotek a story about Holocaust survivors and their liberators.

The two have corresponded occasionally over the 30 years since Knotek was taught by Abelson. When Abelson found out what Knotek was doing, she said she wanted to help.

“I felt that it was just important,” Abelson said. “Soon there will be no one to tell the story, and it’s important to remember this because it was a period of evil.”

Abelson, who is Jewish, sent letters to friends and family explaining what Knotek was doing and asking for their help.

One friend who donated, Susan Farber of Niskayuna, said that she thinks the Holocaust is an important topic that needs to be discussed.

“What a great idea, to bring Gerda Klein to Alaska,” Farber said. “I’ve seen her multiple times. I’ve met her. She’s an amazing human being.”

Knotek said that a total 21 people from the Capital Region donated money to the event.

“As the winter went on, I started getting letters, I started getting checks, from $10 up to $150 from complete strangers from the Albany area,” Knotek said.

“Complete strangers from the Moose Pass School sent $1,000 in donations.”

Once Knotek raised the $3,000, a businessman from Las Vegas who wishes to remain anonymous donated use of his private jet to fly Klein and some family members to Alaska.

So, on March 29, Klein made it to the tiny community of Moose Pass and spoke for several hours to 200 people who packed the gym of the small school there.

Her message was one of hope, faith and humanity, according to Knotek.

Klein grew up in a town in southern Poland and lived there until German soldiers invaded in September 1939. She was separated from her family and taken to a forced-labor camp, according to her foundation’s Web site, www.kleinfoundation.org.

All of her family died during the Holocaust, except for an uncle in Turkey. When her camp was liberated, she met a U.S. Army lieutenant named Kurt Klein, whom she later married.

She is the author of several books, including “All But My Life: A Memoir.”

Knotek said that Klein’s speech has helped her appreciate everyday activities with her family. “She talked about having a boring evening at home,” Knotek said.

Abelson’s mother moved from Poland to the United States in the early 1920s. Abelson was born in 1944 and grew up in New York City

“I suppose that I’ve always had that memory that if my family hadn’t left, if my mother’s family hadn’t left, where would I be?” Abelson asked. “Would I be?”

Abelson has only seen Knotek twice in 30 years, and she remained humble about her involvement in the event. “I only wrote a letter and sent it out to friends,” she said. “We just helped a little bit.”

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