Winnetka teen turns bat mitzvah into just a plain mitzvah

It seems such a simple thing, a young girl visiting a museum with her family during a trip. But for Gertie Harris, that visit proved to her how one person can make a difference.

During a visit for the 2008 summer Olympics, Gertie, 13, of Winnetka, visited a Shanghai, China, museum where she encountered the story of Dr. Ho Feng Shan, who is credited with saving thousands of Jewish people by issuing them visas into China during the Holocaust.

So struck by his story, Gertie says she decided to turn her bat mitzvah into a research project on Ho.

But when visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center soon after its opening last spring, she noticed Ho’s name missing from the museum’s “Fountain of the Righteous” listing heroes who saved Jewish lives. Gertie wanted to know why.

As a result of her efforts, Ho’s name was added to the fountain in November-with Gertie there to watch.

“I feel really honored to have his name put up,” says Gertie, the oldest of Jason Harris’ and Loren Deutsch’s four children. “Somebody can really make a difference like he did in a lot of other people’s lives. Just an ordinary person can do this if they just put their heart to it.”

What activities do you do?: Dance, play soccer and play the violin. She says she “definitely” likes to hang out with friends and go shopping in downtown Chicago. A student at Washburn Junior High in Winnetka, she says her friends would describe her as someone who gets excited about things easily and likes to have fun.

The biggest lesson from this: “If you just put your mind to it, you can do it. Big things happen to small people sometimes.”

Do you see yourself as a hero?: “Doing things like this is what makes the world a better place. If everybody was doing service things and helping out around the community, we’d have a different world.”

What do you envision yourself doing next?: Gertie says she’s proud of what she accomplished for Ho. “I didn’t think a small opportunity could be such a big thing.” She says she definitely wants to stay in touch with the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “I don’t know what’s next.”

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