It’s one thing to read about the Holocaust in books, or see the exhibits in a museum, but it’s a whole other story when to hear first-hand the stories of survivors.
“You read about it, see pictures, you try imagining what it was like, but you can’t because there’s nothing to relate to,” Jonathan Kaufman, a senior at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, said. “To be able to actually hear about this from someone puts it on a more personal level.”
Kaufman and several of his classmates served as guides Monday for Bluma Shapiro, one of more than a dozen Holocaust survivors who visited the school for its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The books have personal experiences about the Holocaust, but you’re not really hearing it, you’re just reading it, Kaufman said.
“You just hear some of the emotions and see what they’re actually feeling,” he said.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is the culmination of weeks of lessons on the Holocaust, which includes reading “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s retelling of his years spent in Nazi concentration camps and a trip to the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Students stood in front of the school to welcome a group of survivors from Chizuk Amuno Synagogue in Pikesville and invite them inside for lunch before listening to their accounts of the Holocaust and their survival.
The day included a showing of an excerpt of the Academy Award winning “Schindler’s List,” and a recollection by 88-year-old Halina Silber, one of the 1,200 Jews whom German businessman and Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler saved from the gas chambers.
“Schindler gave us hope, he gave us a feeling of security and most of all he gave us back our dignity,” Silber told John Carroll students, most of them seniors, gathered in the school’s auditorium.
“The question is, how come a German and Nazi as powerful as all Nazis, defied Hitler’s plan to destroy all Jews, jeopardized his political career, his personal safety, in order to save 1,200 Jews,” Silber said. “For us, the answer is simple. He was just a decent man who could not tolerate human injustice.”
People could criticize Schindler all they want for his business dealings, his drinking and womanizing, she said, recalling what her late husband said: “One does not have to be a saint to do saintly things.”
“For us, Schindler was an angel sent by God to save us,” Silber said.
Bluma Shapiro, 94, was attending John Carroll’s Holocaust Remembrance Day for the fourth time. One of five children, she attended a private Jewish high school in ner native Bialystok, Poland.
Germans occupied her town on Sept. 9, 1939, and the 50,000 Jews in the town were forced to live in a ghetto built to accommodate 10,000. Because she spoke German, she got a job outside the ghetto working for a painting contractor.
In August 1943, Shapiro was taken to a concentration camp, then to another, where she had very little food and worked in a sewing factory. When the camp closed in 1944, she was sent to the Auschwitz camp in Poland.
Shapiro went on a death march, first to Plaszow, then Gross-Rosen and finally to Ravensbruke camp in Germany, which was liberated May 2, 1945 by the Russians.
Shapiro married in Poland in February 1946 and left the country later that year to come to the United States. She settled first in New Jersey than Baltimore.
Shapiro shares her story so people may remember it as the first generation survivors pass away.
“Sometimes when you read it, you think ‘It wasn’t so bad,’ but hearing from people who went through it, it registers, and we can avoid repetition of my experience,” Shapiro said. “We are finished with it, cut it off.”
Unfortunately, she said, something like the Holocaust could happen again.
“I don’t want to predict it, but there’s always a chance,” she said.
Students often find it difficult to believe what the survivors went through.
“You can’t imagine it. You can’t imagine what they went through. You can try, but you can’t comprehend it,” Kaufman said.
“We get to have your emotions to hold on to,” student Callie Courtalis said.
Student Matt Runyeon said it’s hard to grasp what happened by reading a book, but you get more of a feel for what happened “when you see the faces of the people who went through those atrocities.”