The Deitches' grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, had promised to attend their Dec. 9, 2006, simcha. But her death six months earlier left the siblings with a void that seemed nearly impossible to fill.
To include her in their special day, the two were inspired to write and illustrate "We Will Always Remember" (Mishpucha Press, 2006), a book detailing their grandparents' experiences during the Holocaust to be distributed during the ceremony. But what began as a mitzvah project to honor family and remember the Holocaust soon became much more. The Deitches, who live in Hidden Hills, wrote about the experience and won first prize in Areyvut's annual B'nai Mitzvah Essay Contest for a poignant piece detailing their unique and very personal project.
The inspiration for the book was sparked during the shiva, when the Deitches' parents took out the videotaped interview Grandma Julie had provided to the Shoah Foundation. After watching her testimony, Daniel, 14, and Lauren, 12, started to ask questions about her life, especially about her survival during the Holocaust.
"My grandma used to tell us stories about when she was ... in the Holocaust," remembered Lauren. "But she didn't go that far with it."
For their mitzvah project, the Deitches had originally planned to collect books for BookEnds, a local nonprofit that gathers children's books through student-run book drives and places them in schools and youth organizations that lack reading materials. They'd been involved with the group in the past, and it seemed easy for them to continue the effort.
But the interest the siblings took in their grandparents' lives made them reconsider their mitzvah project plans. When their publisher father suggested that they write a book about their grandparents, the Deitches decided to take on both projects.
Daniel and Lauren filled the gaps in their grandmother's tales by digging up old photos, talking to family members, reading Holocaust-related books and visiting the Museum of Tolerance.
In their research, they began to understand their grandmother's desire to protect them from the horrors she'd seen. At the same time, they uncovered a fascinating story. Their grandmother was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She escaped a concentration camp in Hungary with her infant child and played up her fair features in order to pass herself off as a Christian.
Daniel and Lauren were also inspired to learn more about their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Walter. He escaped from Germany as a child via Kindertransport, a British program that enabled Jewish children to escape to England, while his parents fled to Shanghai to survive.
Daniel and Lauren unveiled the book to their friends and family during the b'nai mitzvah ceremony. The siblings remember watching their guests' faces when the rabbi revealed the book.
"Everyone started crying," Lauren said.
To continue to honor their grandmother's memory, the Deitches have arranged for the profits from book sales to go to The Blue Card Fund, a national charity that provides financial assistance to needy Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children.
For Daniel and Lauren, becoming authors has also meant serving as peer educators.
"I told my friends that I wrote a book about the Holocaust, and at least three of them didn't know what it was," said Daniel. Lauren had a similar experience.
In addition to sharing their knowledge and their book with their friends, the children gave copies of it to their principal and teachers at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas. Another copy resides in the school library.
It was the personal aspect of the Deitches' essay about their book project that won over the judges. "[Their project] took an experience that hit home for them, in terms of their grandmother passing away and their grandparents in the Holocaust, and it really added to their celebration," said Daniel Rothner, founder and director of Areyvut. Areyvut of Bergenfield , N.J., a nonprofit that sponsors the annual essay contest, is dedicated to promoting charity, justice and social justice. In addition to its popular "A Kindness a Day" page-a-day calendar, the organization offers resources for b'nai mitzvah projects for students, educators and families. The essay contest, now in its third year, allows students to share their outreach experiences, speak for their peers and elevate their celebrations by helping others.
While their prizes for the essay include a Giving Certificate to be redeemed through Tzedakah Inc. and an iPod, the students feel the experience itself is more valuable than the prizes.
"Daniel and Lauren have done something that will be with them for a long, long time as they get older," Rothner said.
For now, the Deitches will continue to educate others. "If people ask, 'What's the Holocaust?'" Lauren said, "we're going to tell them."