Holocaust survivors share stories, 'enthusiasm for life' with John Carroll students

'The last generation' of students to come face-to-face with Holocaust survivors have a Remembrance Day in Bel

"You are the last generation to hear of our suffering and the miracles by which we survived the Holocaust," Halina Silber told a rapt audience of mostly-teenage faces in The John Carroll School's auditorium Tuesday morning.

"Many of the Holocaust survivors have already passed away and so, when the rest of us will be gone, we hope that you will keep reminding the world of our past," Silber concluded.

The 85-year-old native of Krakow, Poland, who lives in Baltimore, was one of hundreds of Jews rescued by Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman memorialized in the movie "Schindler's List."

Her witness to the systematic murder of millions of Jews and other people deemed undesirable during World War II was part of an in-depth and often emotional Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual event at the Bel Air Catholic high school.

The John Carroll School welcomed 16 survivors Tuesday, with classes listening to their stories, joining them for lunch and preparing to take part in a prayer and candle-lighting tribute later in the day.

A group of students excitedly greeted survivors as they stepped off a bus from Baltimore Tuesday morning, with some students joyfully hugging the older visitors and escorting them inside on the unusually frigid morning.

Silber, who led the morning's main presentation, told of her journey from Nazi-occupied Poland to freedom, thanks to her mother, who made her lie about her age and hitchhike alone to Krakow. She was ultimately saved by Schindler and moved to the U.S. in 1951.

Students wondered about her life post-Holocaust, and one asked how many languages she spoke. Silber said she speaks "a little English" and Polish, understands "Jewish" (Yiddish) and "a little Russian."

Several wondered about the accuracy of "Schindler's List." Silber replied: "Not only was it accurate, sometimes when I was watching it for the first time, I was not sure if I was here or there. He has spared many scenes that were much more brutal and would be very hard to watch, but the rest of it was very factual indeed."

Silber confirmed that the weapons made in Schindler's factory were not functional, despite Nazi orders.

"I don't know the details, but I know we were not producing them to really work," she said.

Louise Geczy, who spearheaded the project 13 years ago after coming to John Carroll from Perry Hall High School, said she has seen students do everything from major in Holocaust studies in college to return to tell her they will always remember the day.

"I have never taught anything that has had a greater impact on students than the Holocaust studies," Geczy, who has been teaching since 1967, said Tuesday. Like many other faculty, she wore a gold pin that said "zachor," Hebrew for "remember."

"One of the greatest gifts that the survivors give students is their enthusiasm for life," Geczy said. "The kids will ask them, 'Why aren't you bitter? Why aren't you angry? Why aren't you hateful?' and whatever, and they say, 'Because if we are, [Adolf] Hitler wins,' even after all these years."

The day came on the heels of a Monday trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by John Carroll alum Andy Klein, of Harford County's ShopRite supermarket family.

Molly Exter, a senior, was among those who said the entire experience taught her the importance of standing up for people.

"There's a man who just happened to be a survivor walking around and I had the privilege of talking to him," Molly said about her trip to the museum, explaining he told students: "Don't just be the bystander that just stands by and lets it happen."

"He used the analogy of high school and me being a blonde and jokes about that," she said. "If one person stands up, then everyone's going to come up with you."

"When people ask him what about the world today, he was worried about, like, the situation in Paris [with terrorism and anti-Semitism]; no one's standing up for them," Molly said. "It kind of affected me because he was saying, no, that can happen to you. It moves over really quickly. It gave me the courage to stand up for people, hearing what he said, that I can actually make the difference."

Alex English, a senior, said he enjoyed meeting the survivors.

"I really like it, because there is no other way to get a first-hand experience, and it's just a great way to help people remember," he said, noting it is more critical as fewer survivors are alive each year. "I feel that increases the importance of what happens here."

Bluma Shapiro, 91, a Bialystok, Poland, native who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and a death march, was eagerly chatting with several students before lunch.

"I think very positively about this event. Every year they do this, and I hope that in a small way, we can prevent this [war] from re-occurring," Shapiro, who lives in York, Pa., said. She said it is easy to be pessimistic about society today, but "we hope to grow up in a better world."

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