Holocaust survivors and high school students joined hands around lit candles in a packed Barry University auditorium Tuesday, all making the same pledge.
They talked about prejudice on different scales — the Holocaust survivors struggled at times to describe horrific concentration camp conditions, and the students shared stories of bullying — but they all took a vow: to never remain silent while others are persecuted.
“I was embarrassed to be part of humanity,” after entering the concentration camp at Dachau, said George Katzman, a 93-year-old World War II veteran who participated in liberating more than 23,000 people (including Holocaust survivor Julius Eisenstein who was also present in the auditorium) who were locked inside, barely alive. “When I go to my death, which will probably be soon, my last thought will be of that.”
More than 500 students from Miami-Dade high schools discussed the Holocaust and its impact on modern society with the 55 survivors present in small roundtable discussions, as part of the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center’s Miami-Dade County Student Awareness Day.
At one table, Olga Issenberg-Gros, who spent seven weeks at Auschwitz when she was 16, told students about the first shower she took at the camp. After she and the other prisoners, who were so tightly packed they could barely move, heard the doors of the shower lock, they did not expect to survive. When the shower was over, she could not believe they’d been drenched in water and not gassed.
Issenberg-Gros escaped death — and eventually, Auschwitz — shortly after her arrival. Because she had a twin brother (and German doctors were interested in performing experiments on twins), she was selected to be admitted to the Auschwitz “infirmary.” But instead of entering, she hid in a garbage bin, from which she heard screams coming from inside.
Even she cannot believe she is alive today, she told the students.
“So many times I was almost at the end,” she said.
Katzman and Issenberg-Gros both said they were inspired to speak about their Holocaust experiences when they realized some people deny that the nightmarish events ever occurred.
“How dare they?” Katzman said. After serving in WWII, he could barely speak about what he saw for 30 years, although sometimes he would wake up screaming. He described being an eyewitness to ovens full of bodies and feeling the 60-pound prisoners touch the sleeve of his fatigues (which he wore as he spoke) and die on the spot. “When we opened up the gates [of Dachau] … we opened the gates of Hell,” he said.
Jadae Sterling, a 14-year-old freshman at Phyl’s Academy Preparatory School, said after sitting next to Issenberg-Gros and hearing her speak, she believes her generation should take the Holocaust more seriously.
“This is what they’ve been through,” she said. “If you don’t treat others well, we’ve seen that the result is bullying, cyber-bullying and it can even lead to suicide.”
In addition to speaking with Holocaust survivors, the students listened to presentations from Broward County native Angela King, who spoke about her former life of “organized extremism” as a “skin head” and subsequent change of heart, Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein, who discussed equality as an American ideal, and Florida Marlins president David Samson who shared thoughts about community and having a strong moral compass.
Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, the president of the Holocaust Documentation & Education Center, Inc., said the awareness day is so important, as students are being “bombarded by hate” in music, online and on social media.
“Everyone is searching for a sense of belonging,” she said. “We want to bring that message home.”
Eisenstein, who was liberated from Dachau, said he still gets goose bumps when he thinks about the day he became free. He lost his father, mother and three sisters during the Holocaust, and his life is “a miracle from God,” he said.
Now, he tries to explain to students how lucky they are to live in the United States, he said.
“There is no other country in the whole world like this.”