Holocaust survivors put faces behind the lessons

February 20, 2005|By Matthew Kasper | Matthew Kasper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Do you know what repressed memory means?" World War II veteran Preston Daisey asked the crowd of about 200 John Carroll School seniors, faculty and guests in the school auditorium Tuesday morning.

Before anyone could answer, he said, "There's no repressed memory for me."

Daisey, an 82-year-old former U.S. Army soldier from Towson, was one of 12 people asked to speak about their experiences with the Holocaust. The program was part of a 12th-grade project on the Holocaust and genocide organized by John Carroll English teacher Louise Geczy.

Daisey gave an account of the discovery of "40 boxcars" of Jewish bodies at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.

A 40-minute Steven Spielberg documentary, Survivors of the Holocaust, preceded Daisey's talk, with small-group sessions consisting of seniors and Holocaust survivors filling the rest of the three-hour event.

"I hope this [day] helps you realize this isn't just history 60-odd years ago," Geczy said. "This was very real and happened to real people who suffered real pain."

Even though seniors were assigned Elie Wiesel's Holocaust novel Night in preparation for the program, Geczy recognized the impact of hearing firsthand about the Holocaust: transforming students into participants.

"In all likelihood," Geczy told them, "you'll be the last generation to hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust."

Even people in attendance who were alive during World War II admitted that they were still learning about the Holocaust and using it as a lens to view other atrocities in recent history.

Citing Daisey's account, Jerry and Helen Carpenter said they saw a connection between the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the gassing of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein.

"I was very lucky, because not many people survived [the camps] at all," said 83-year-old Felix Kestenberg, a Polish emigrant who lived in several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, before being liberated in 1945.

In different classroom sessions, 12th-graders sat silently at their desks while people much older than them recounted their lives as children and young adults suffering under the oppression of the Nazi regime.

Kestenberg told his class that surviving the Holocaust has meant coming to terms with horrific events, questioning his religion and severing ties with a country he once called home.

"At times you don't believe in God. ... But as you get older, faith comes back," he said when a student asked him whether he ever struggled with believing in a higher power.

Another student asked whether he felt anger toward the concentration camp guards.

"I still don't go back to Germany and don't buy German products," Kestenberg said. "And I feel anger toward older [German] people - but not the younger people."

Reading from her notes on wrinkled yellow paper, 69-year-old Esther Kaidanow told her class about a childhood spent hiding in Bosnian homes and being forced to rely on strangers in what is now Croatia to help her escape Nazi detection.

Despite losing an uncle in a concentration camp and believing, at one point, that a sister in the former Yugoslav republic was dead, Kaidanow said she eventually reunited with her family.

She moved to Philadelphia in 1945 when President Harry S. Truman allowed European refugees to enter the United States with refugee status.

"Was language a big barrier for you?" a student asked.

"It took a few months, and I still have an accent," Kaidanow said.

"There are people in this world who are perpetrators" said 81-year-old Holocaust survivor Emmy Mogilensky at the end of her session.

"There are people in this world who are victims, and there are people who are bystanders and do nothing," she said. "Then there are people who help the victims.

"Think about what group of people you want to belong to," Mogilensky said, pointing at the students from her chair. "But don't just think about it - do something about it."

Students said the opportunity to listen to, as well as speak with, Holocaust survivors made the tragedy resonate with them.

"Actually having the people tell their account is remarkable," said John Carroll senior Evan Hollenshade, who said that it was "still hard to believe" that an event as terrible as the Holocaust could happen.

"I'm really interested in faith; [staying faithful] would be the hardest part for me," said senior Theresa Hackford.

"It's a good age to learn about [the Holocaust] because people are still deciding who they are," Hackford added.

As part of its study of the Holocaust, the senior class will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington this week.

Studying the Holocaust is a particularly important exercise for seniors, Geczy said, because you want students to "think and analyze hard things"; even though there is a danger that spending so much time on a depressing subject can make you "numb," the risk is worth it.

Leo Bretholz, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor, agrees.

Bretholz said that all he wants to do by talking to people about the Holocaust is "create awareness." He sees his words and writings as a means "to see that it does not happen again."

Geczy said she is just happy that the speakers keep coming back. Some of them "don't know how much longer they have left," she said.

So before they left, Geczy made sure to let them know they were appreciated.

"You restore my faith in humanity," she said.

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