The Rose Grows brought South Florida Holocaust survivor Anya Baum across the state of Tennessee, reaching thousands in just one week. The tour happened around Holocaust Remembrance Day, & was possible through the partnership of The Rose Grows and the Tennessee Holocaust Commission.
Anya Baum, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, danced with young kids just two miles away from The Covenant School in Nashville. She received a medal from the FBI in Knoxville, met Mayor Cooper of Nashville, and was mailed a certificate from Governor Lee naming her an “Honorary Tennessean”
The tour kicked off in Memphis at Temple Israel, where a crowd of all ages and backgrounds were excited to meet Anya. Three local Jewish teens- Ethan Evans, Lea Thomas, and Lily Mccollum opened the program with their connection to Judaism, Israel, & Anti Semitism.
The next stop was Harding Academy in Nashville. One of the eighth graders, Grant Song, said his favorite part of the program was “dancing with Anya and all of his friends.” The 8th graders got the perfect visitor before their trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. One third grader said, “I am glad I met Anya, I think this experience will be even more important when I am older.” Parents were also in attendance.
Next was Cumberland University, where it was standing room only. University President Dr. Paul Stumb joined Anya on stage while over 300 teens, college students, University, and local government officials attended.
Later Anya met with Mayor Cooper of Nashville. He thanked Anya for her educational efforts. Through a chance social media encounter, we were delighted to meet Alyssa Hodge, a local photographer who took the day off to volunteer to take Anya’s photos and hear her story. After learning about the Holocaust as a homeschooled teen, she shared that as an adult, this opportunity was the most special request she ever received. She never thought she would meet a survivor.
Then the tour headed to Knoxville for the FBI. Anya reminded agents what can happen when law enforcement does not protect the rights of all individuals and their respective communities. She thanked them for their tireless efforts to keep our country safe, and was honored to receive a special medal. Later that night, we participated in a community-wide Knoxville-Oak Ridge Holocaust Remembrance Event. In fact, one of the FBI agents we met earlier in the day attended with his daughters. It turns out he was Jewish!
It was here Anya and I realized there is a strong possibility that my Grandfather ran the Displaced Person’s Camp Anya was in as a child. Later in the tour, we believe we found a photograph of Anya’s stepfather in a book about the DP camp belonging to my late grandfather Joseph Exelbierd. The universe makes no mistakes- we were meant to go on this journey.
In the morning Anya spoke for hundreds of teenagers at The Episcopal School of Knoxville. Not only did she make the local news stations in Knoxville, but that afternoon we had a special in-studio interview in Nashville with Laura Schweizer for WKRN.
The tour wrapped up in Memphis, where Anya and I spoke alongside Ethan Evans, the great-grandson of a Holocaust survivor, & his teacher Keith Wood at Christian Brothers High School for over 400 teenagers. Mr. Wood passionately shared that ever since the school was started on November 21, 1871, there have been Jews in attendance. The school was created because the other Catholic schools were not accepting of all students.
We ended at the Margolin Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Memphis. Students learned about our week educating people who are not Jewish about the Holocaust and Antisemitism. We emphasized the importance of not being afraid to share their Jewish pride. After their speech, we had a special dance session with the girls to celebrate the end of Anya’s tour and Shabbat!
The tour was met with curious minds, open hearts, and arms at every venue. When we returned home, we were shocked Tennessee Governor Bill Lee mailed a special certificate recognizing Anya as an “Honorary Tennessean”!
I plan to continue spreading light in places where there are no survivors to share their story. This includes honoring the memory of my Holocaust Survivor grandparents Joseph and Rachel, and their son, my late father Allen Exelbierd. I will never stop telling the stories because in doing so, I continue to learn more about myself, my family, and the world.
For more Information on Rayna Rose Exelbierd & Anya Baum visit TheRoseGrows.Com
Rayna Rose Exelbierd is a Motivational speaker, Mentor, and Author.
This piece was originally published in print for the Sun Sentinel Jewish Journal on June 14th, 2023.