The sixth- and seventh-grade students of Oklahoma Road Middle School sat rapt in their gymnasium in Eldersburg as Edith Cord told them stories of the past, of the world of their grandparents and even great-grandparents.
But as Cord would tell them during her hourlong presentation Thursday, this wasn’t ancient history. It wasn’t even past.
Cord was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1928, fled with her family to Italy after the rise of Nazi Germany and later to southern France after fascist Italy allied with Adolf Hitler. After the fall of France to the Nazis, Cord’s father and brother were arrested and eventually sent to Auschwitz, from which they never returned — victims of the Holocaust, which stole the lives of millions. She survived for a while with a fake identity in a French school before being smuggled into Switzerland, where she worked as a nanny until the end of the war.
Cord spoke also of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and her memories of those events, such as the Reichstag fire in 1933 and how Hitler “blamed the communists for that and put them into camps.”
Or prior to that, how British Prime Minister Minister Neville Chamberlain secured an agreement with Hitler, allowing Germany to keep the newly annexed Austria, Cord’s home, and what Chamberlain believed would be “peace in our time.”
“I was 10 years old, but I remember thinking there will not be peace,” Cord told the students. “Bad guys can’t be appeased. They will take as much as they can from you.”
But most of all, Cord repeatedly pointed to the importance of remembering the lessons of the Holocaust, in particular the ideological roots from which it sprung.
“It doesn’t start with death camps and machine guns. It starts with ideas,” she said. “We think of ideas as flimsy or unimportant, but that is the basis of our lives.”
Cord took time in her talk, for instance, to discuss the philosophical underpinnings of western democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, as opposed to the “enlightened despotism” and focus on ethnicity in the German society leading into World War I.
“Germany took the wrong fork in the road,” Cord told the students, “By glorifying ethnicity. Which is how they came up with the phrase, ‘blood and soil,’ which we heard recently, in Charlottesville.”
It was a moving experience for some students.
“I was starting to tear up,” sixth-grader Zachary Dye said. “What I was thinking was really that I couldn’t really believe anybody could go through that, to actually come out of this to tell stories so moving and so touching. It’s really just special.”
Dylan Rubin, a seventh-grader, said that as a Jewish person, it was personally fascinating to learn the history and Cord’s story, though it wasn’t always easy to keep listening.
“It’s a lot of pain and suffering. It’s hard to deal with sometimes,” he said. “But I think it’s important that people know about it.”
Rubin, and the other students, almost didn’t have the opportunity to know about it, according to PTA president Michele Rogers, who said Cord had come to speak at the school in the past.
“She used to come speak to just the eighth-grade class, but the curriculum changed in Carroll County so there was not a spot for a speaker in eighth grade anymore to do this,” she said.
But knowing the value of what Cord had to say, Rogers and the PTA worked with the school for two years to bring her back.
“When the PTA was concerned about not hitting funding needs, we had a family step up and say, ‘we will pay for her to come no matter what,’ ” Rogers said. “They’ve been having lessons all week on who this woman is, what the Holocaust is, how devastating it was, at a level for their age.”
Cord said she also is conscious of the age she was speaking to, and especially likes to take time to define terms younger students may not know, such as “Nazi” or “despotic.” But she said she does not shy away from describing the sometimes disturbing details of Nazi atrocities, or the detailed history of the ideas and events that led to the rise of the Nazis with younger audiences, in hopes the lessons will not be lost.
Latest Carroll County News
“My goal is not to pour my heart out and elicit sympathy, I’ve dealt with this past and I would just as soon go do something else,” Cord said. “But I think there’s such terrible lessons to be learned and I don’t want us to repeat the same mistakes.”