Broward County

Bond between Holocaust survivor, Parkland teacher shows thread linking tragedies

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Ivy Schamis, right, poses for a photo with Holocaust survivor Leon Schagrin, who lives in Sunrise. Schamis teaches a course about the history of the Holocaust and became friends with Schagrin about five years ago.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher Ivy Schamis, right, poses for a photo with Holocaust survivor Leon Schagrin, who lives in Sunrise. Schamis teaches a course about the history of the Holocaust and became friends with Schagrin about five years ago. Courtesy photo

Leon Schagrin likes to say that history repeats itself, but he never imagined hate would follow him from Poland to Parkland.

The 92-year-old Holocaust survivor lives about 10 miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where on Feb. 14, 2018, a former student gunned down 17 students and faculty members. Nikolas Cruz’s ammunition magazines were emblazoned with swastikas. And one of the classrooms he targeted, killing two inside, was a course on the history of the Holocaust.

“It’s a cancer that continues,” Leon Schagrin said, describing the common thread of hate that links massacres old and new. “I hope the new generation would have their own judgment.”

The Parkland shooting, and the assault on Room 1214, held a deeper meaning still for Schagrin. His friend was teaching inside while bullets flew inside her classroom. Ivy Schamis, a longtime teacher at Stoneman Douglas, had invited Schagrin several times to meet her students. Copies of Schagrin’s biography, “The Horse Adjutant: A Boy’s Life in Nazi Holocaust,” still remain inside the shuttered classroom.

Elsewhere in the room, still frozen in time: A banner that reads “Never Again.”

In the months following the tragedy in Parkland, student activists marched in lockstep with the words of the Jewish community and post-Holocaust activists before them. The social media hashtag “Never Again” became their calling card. Their fight would be to end gun violence. But for Schagrin and Schamis, the common thread linking Parkland to the genocide of millions of Jews in Europe is that both groups were targeted by a hater.

“Sometimes the kids can relate to them,” Schamis said. “It’s too bad that they can, but they sometimes can relate to them.”

Three months after the shooting, some of the students who witnessed their friends die in Room 1214 met with Holocaust survivors at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, and Schamis said the connection between the victims has provided her students perspective about peoplle experiencing traumatic loss first hand.

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Armin Kraus, center, met with survivors of the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in May. Kraus is a survivor of the Holocaust. The students were taking a course on the history of the Holocaust, taught by teacher Ivy Schamis, during the school shooting. Two students died inside the classroom. Howie Sonnenschein/Holocaust Documentation and Education Center Courtesy photo

Before her students darted for the corners of her classroom during the shooter’s Valentine’s Day rampage, they had been learning about, among other topics, the rise of hate groups in America. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks these groups, estimates that 954 hate groups currently operate in the U.S. In 2017, the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported in the country increased by 57 percent, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.

When Schagrin was about 16 years old, his parents and five siblings were killed inside the Nazi-run Belzec death camp in occupied Poland. His wife Betty, who was saved from death by businessman Oskar Schindler, also suffered immeasurable loss.

But nowadays, Betty has nightmares about the future. And Leon wonders if anti-Semitism and hatred will ever really go away.

“They’re more worried about the future than ever before. They’re not worried about themselves. They felt hopeful when they met our students,” Schamis said.

Reminded about the past, Schamis said, her kids are learning to be more vigilant about the world around them. Several of the victims of the shooting were Jewish, their Star of David memorials lined up alongside white crosses outside the school following the shooting.

“It’s real. You’re not born with that [hate],” she said. “It has to come from somewhere. This world is a better place if we don’t perpetuate that learning and that we have to figure out how to combat it. If we cant prevent it, then we should combat it.”

On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, Schamis will take her students to a farm in Davie. The Holocaust won’t come up. Instead, her message will be about self care and hope for the future.

“Animals don’t hate,” she said.

Martin Vassolo is a general assignment reporter on the Miami Herald’s metro desk. He was a member of the Herald’s reporting team covering the 2018 midterm elections and Florida’s recount. Previously, he worked as a political reporting intern with the Herald and as editor-in-chief of the University of Florida’s student newspaper, The Independent Florida Alligator.


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