Holocaust Remembrance Day at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, which features Holocaust survivors speaking to the seniors all day. (Bryna Zumer and Ulysses Munoz / BSMG)
A dozen or so seniors at The John Carroll School in Bel Air sat motionless, transfixed as they listened Tuesday to Howard Kaidanow tell his story, quietly and bluntly, from a chair at the front of the classroom.
When he was a bit younger than they are, a teenager in 1940s Poland/Belarus, Kaidanow was trying to join the resistance movement against German troops.
He had seen his parents killed by Germans – his mother beaten, then shot to death; his father burned alive in a barn. The Jewish teen later found a group of about 80 partisans, "freedom fighters," who were mostly Russian.
"I wanted to join them, but I had two problems. I was too young; I was 13 years old. The other problem was, I didn't have no gun. They didn't accept anyone without a gun," Kaidanow, who survived the assault on his parents by hiding under straw, said.
Kaidanow's story was one of many shared during the Bel Air Catholic high school's annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, which brings together the increasingly shrinking pool of Holocaust survivors to talk to students.
As 19 guests, including survivors and second-generation speakers, took turns speaking to groups of students, the halls of John Carroll held constant reminders of the intense project.
Long tables facing the courtyard were filled with grim but creative artistic representations of the stories and victims of the Holocaust, with some alluding to more recent genocides, such as a bleeding heart reading "Help heal Darfur."
Across from the art projects, a video screen played more stories from that dark period in European history.
Louise Brink Géczy, senior project coordinator, asks teachers to volunteer to pick up the survivors so they don't have to drive to the school, so "it's a big community effort and it's a big impact on our students, too," school spokesperson Joseph Schuberth said.
"You really can see that they're paying attention. Everyone's leaning forward and focused on what's going on," Schuberth said about the Holocaust survivors' talks. "I think they realize that this is a really valuable experience that they won't get anywhere else, and just the fact that Louise spends all of her time getting all these people together so we can really pay a respectful remembrance to these Holocaust survivors and to the Holocaust in general."
"I think it means a lot to them, and a lot of students go on to say that this day was one of the most memorable days they've had at John Carroll," Schuberth said.
Kaidanow told his student audience about the days of wearing yellow stars and working with the partisans through the "two coldest winters on record" until he was liberated by the Russians in 1944.
"They gave me a submachine gun, which was good for me because I didn't know how to aim," he said, adding that almost his entire family was killed and he ended up moving to the United States, where he met his wife in the 1950s. "It was a miracle, but we survived."
Afterward, sitting with students over lunch, he explained he did not begin publicly sharing his story until later in life.
"I just couldn't talk about it, but now the time is short, so I decided that no matter what, I'm going to talk," he said. "It's not easy for me to talk, especially about my parents, but I decided that I'm going to overcome it and talk about it."
Kaidanow said he "of course" is worried people will forget the history.
"After we're gone, who is going to tell the story? All the people are going to see is by reading, and reading is not the same as somebody telling the story," he said.
Many students seemed moved and fascinated by the speakers' stories, and said they seemed especially relevant to world events today.
"I think what's most important is how [the survivors] relate that to what's going on now in the country, because it's pretty controversial," Wilfred Ikejiofor, of Joppatowne, said, noting one woman's sympathy for Syrian refugees.
"A lot of people don't want [refugees] to come and they have different reasons why, but it's interesting hearing [the survivors'] take on it because they were once refugees, and I think it's even more interesting because, the Syrian refugees, they're predominantly Muslim, and these people are Jewish, so it's interesting to see what they think about it, and the ones I've been speaking to, they're pretty sympathetic to them," he said.
"Some people, the rise of [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump kind of scares them," he continued, referring to Trump's controversial proposals. "When you think about, like, banning Muslims, for example, that kind of phrasing, and a lot of people who support that kind of thing, it's interesting how [the survivors] relate that to maybe what was going on in Germany at the time [before the Holocaust], because a lot of them were alive at that time when things were starting to get rough."
"People back then, they were saying, 'Oh, this could never happen, this could never happen; it's 1930.' And now people are saying, 'Oh, this could never happen, it's 2016,'" he said.
Kaidanow's wife, Esther, agreed with Wilfred's thoughts on supporting refugees, noting Americans were also suspicious of past immigrants as potential foreign sympathizers.
"They do forget that, when Jewish people were looking for a home, no one would help," she said.
Taylor Radinsky, of Jarrettsville, meanwhile, was surprised to learn about her own great-grandparents during the school's earlier trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
"The crazy thing is, these people are so sweet and they're so centered on life, they're so happy, it's hard to think that they actually went through something like that," Taylor said. "It's crazy that people have that love for life even though they've seen death so intensely, more than anyone else has."