Miami-Dade County

South Florida students learn about choice from concentration camp museum guide

Buchenwald inmate No. 024644164 stared out from his 1944 intake photo. And 43 Miami-Dade eighth-graders stared back.

At just 14, the boy in the photo, Dawid Jakubowics was about the same age as the students in Madelin Vinat’s U.S. history class. So how did this Yugoslavian teen end up a political prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp?

The answer — that the Gestapo falsely branded him a political prisoner as a means to bring another worker to their munitions factories — was almost secondary to the question. Because in speaking to George Washington Carver Middle students this week, Jan Malecha, a historian and guide at a museum that now stands at the notorious Buchenwald death camp, aimed as much to spur questions and critical thinking as relay facts and information.

“Do people have choices in everyday life? Did prisoners have choices?” Malecha asked the class. “It’s not so easy that things were only good and bad.”

Malecha’s visit to Coral Gables on Thursday was part of a five-month, 150-school South Florida tour that will include lectures to about 5,000 students by the time he returns to Germany in May. At each stop, Malecha hopes, students will focus on the little decisions that allowed 56,000 to die in the Buchenwald concentration camp from its establishment in 1937 until it was liberated in 1945.

Malecha, 32, brings with him information, photos and artifacts from the Buchenwald Memorial archives. He challenges students to go beyond blanket ideas of what it meant to live in and around a concentration camp, where not all prisoners were created equal and citizens of nearby communities chose to play dumb to what they saw.

“When we ask about why something happened, students should know there are other perspectives,” Malecha said with a slight German accent. “There were a lot of small decisions, including not to do something — to be a bystander.”

That latter point is precisely why Craig and Barbara Weiner brought Malecha to South Florida through their not-for-profit Holocaust Learning and Education Fund. Craig Weiner said he connected with the Buchenwald guide after visiting Europe and touring concentration camps.

He said he realized lessons from the stories of Buchenwald could be applied to kids in the United States. For instance, he talked to Vinat’s class Thursday about bullying and how — similar to the people of Weimar — many students see things they know are wrong but choose to do nothing.

“People supplied materials, provided work and delivered food to the concentration camp. The crematorium was in the center of the town running nonstop burning bodies. But after the war they said ‘We knew nothing,’ ” Weiner said in an interview. “And this is what’s going on with the bullying.”

For Alexa Velez, 13, the stories were powerful, but the comparison to relentless Instagram teasing sounded a bit stretched.

“To me, I don’t think the Holocaust should be compared to bullying,” she said.

It’s a heady concept for sure. But the discussion drew different conclusions in Vinat’s class, in part because Malecha brought an authenticity from across the pond.

“This guy is like a talking museum,” said Natalia Rovira, 14. “The Holocaust was the biggest bullying event in the world.”

Among the stories Malecha tells is about how Buchenwald got its crematorium up and running. He said the Nazis approached five companies with specifications for ovens that clearly suggested they needed to burn bodies. And Malecha said the first company declined to provide ovens and mechanics.

But the second company, J.A. Topf & Sons, said yes. Malecha said the equipment enabled Buchenwald to kill an estimated 56,000 people before the camp was liberated in 1945. Other camps used the incinerators as well.

“They could have said ‘we’re not able’ ” to build the ovens, Malecha told the class. “The problem is, five companies were asked and two said yes. They voluntarily did this for the SS.”

The story about Topf generated a discussion: Why did they agree to do it? Were they afraid of punishment? Or was it the profits, which Malecha said amounted to 2 percent of their bottom line?

And whatever happened to Dawid, the teenager in that haunting photo who had been put to work at Buchenwald? Malecha said he simply disappeared from Buchenwald records, perhaps because he was transferred to a satellite camp.

Vinat, the teacher who hosted Malecha on Thursday, said his presence was powerful because he has a personal connection with Buchenwald, and that resonates with students.

“I’ve learned a lot about the Holocaust, but there’s nothing like having an expert. He’s bringing that history here, and he’s making it come alive for them,” she said. “He’s asking them these questions to make them think about the types of discrimination they might encounter and how they can deal with it and take ownership of their actions.”

Malecha will continue lecturing at schools in South Florida and Orange County until the school year ends in May. According to Weiner, his stay and lectures were paid for by the Holocaust Learning and Education Fund, which relies on sponsors including Publix, Miramax and Extended Stay hotels.

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A quote in this article previously mischaracterized the nature of Buchenwald, which was not an extermination camp. Also, the location of the Buchenwald crematorium was inside the camp.