Irma Pretsfelder became emotional Monday afternoon while describing meeting students at The John Carroll School in Bel Air and telling them about her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust.
“These young people give me hope for the future,” said Pretsfelder, who lauded the private school students for their “politeness,” their interest and respect as she and 23 other Holocaust survivors — or children of survivors — told their stories.
The survivors and children of survivors interacted with John Carroll seniors throughout the day, either through presentations or face-to-face conversations. About 75 to 80 members of the 180-person senior class served as volunteer guides, spending the entire day with a survivor.
The group visited for John Carroll’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, and each person was greeted with cheers and applause, even hugs, when they pulled up in cars and buses at the school’s main entrance.
The Holocaust happened during the 1930s and ‘40s as the Nazi Party, which took power in Germany in the early ‘30s, oversaw the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews and millions of other Roma, LBGT people, prisoners of war and political dissidents.
Pretsfelder, 92, lives in Baltimore. She grew up in Germany and was a child during Kristallnacht in late 1938 when Jews throughout the country were attacked and their businesses, residences and synagogues were destroyed — the many shards of glass lying in the streets gave rise to the name “Night of Broken Glass.”
She said her family escaped to England and later immigrated to the United States.
“God has a big hand in all of this,” she said of John Carroll’s program.
The seniors started their day with remarks from keynote speaker Marsha Tishler, a native of Poland who was 3 months old when her parents fled the Nazis and hid with her in the forest, and David Estrin, founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based organization Together We Remember.
Estrin, 28, said later that all four of his grandparents survived the Holocaust, and he founded Together We Remember in 2012, while a student at Duke University, after one of his grandfathers died.
He said he was inspired to “basically transform remembrance into action, to make ‘Never again’ a reality.” He works, through his nonprofit organization, with communities and student groups to host vigils and events to raise awareness of genocide, remember victims of the Holocaust and other genocides and prevent future atrocities.
Estrin has worked with John Carroll students in the past on other events, such as a Genocide Remembrance Day last April and was a speaker at the “Lessons of the Shoah” interfaith program for local high school students — hosted by John Carroll — last November.
He said the students become “part of a much bigger movement that is happening all over the world, which is special.”
The bulk of the survivors and survivors’ children arrived around 11 a.m. and were greeted by their student guides, who worked in groups of two to three. Each visitor was escorted to the school’s Brown Room for lunch.
School President Steve DiBiagio was among the presenters, as his father and fellow U.S. soldiers liberated the Ahlem concentration camp in Germany on April 10, 1945. DiBiagio greeted Cathy Reinkjng, an Atlanta resident whose father survived the Ahlem camp.
“Thanks to the Internet, he found me,” Reinking said of DiBiagio.
After lunch, some groups of students remained in the Brown Room, talking intently with the survivors, while others went to various classrooms for presentations from other survivors or children of survivors.
“When [students] get a chance to sit at a table across from history, it makes an impact on them they wouldn’t get otherwise,” said Louise Geczy, John Carroll’s senior project coordinator and organizer of Holocaust-related events at the school.
This year is the 25th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day at John Carroll. Geczy has worked at the school for 17 years, and she has worked to bring in survivors nearly every year for Holocaust Remembrance Day. A number of survivors have visited John Carroll in prior years.
“They just love to come back here,” said Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust programs for the Baltimore Jewish Council — the school coordinates with the council to bring survivors to campus.
“It’s such a welcoming, wonderful [place], and it’s just a great experience,” Parmigiani added.
Kate Webb, an administrative support associate in the school’s marketing and admissions office, took photos during the gathering. She is also a 2008 graduate of John Carroll who met Holocaust survivors when she was a senior.
Webb, 28, said she recognized about five or six survivors who visited when she was a student more than a decade ago, saying “it’s kind of like family — they come back every year.”
She had learned about the Holocaust in middle and high school, but meeting survivors gave those history lessons a real face, Webb said.
She noted that what she reads about in the news, “it affects real people, real lives, real families.”
“I think having this experience helped me carry that into adulthood,” Webb said.
The visitors were not just people who had been in concentration camps, but those who lived in ghettos — areas of cities restricted to Jews — those whose families lived in hiding during the war or escaped from their home countries, people who were resistance fighters as well as members of the second generation, whose parents survived the Holocaust.
“This is one of those stories that is important to keep alive because it goes well beyond what happened in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Geczy said. “The lessons of the Shoah are applicable in today’s world, just as applicable as they were back then.”
She also noted Andrew Klein, a 1971 graduate of John Carroll whose family operates the Klein’s ShopRite supermarket chain, and his family’s foundation, has provided financial support for Holocaust Remembrance Day activities each year. Klein died earlier Monday in a car accident near Bel Air.
“We couldn’t do all this without their generosity,” Geczy said.
She said the seniors will travel to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery in northern Virginia.
Students Georgia Ceanfaglione and Tommy Kerfoot spent Monday with 95-year-old survivor Bluma Shapiro, a native of Białystok, Poland, who lived in a ghetto in her hometown and was later a prisoner at the Blizyn labor camp and Auschwitz concentration camp.
Shapiro, who lives in York, Pa., made her fifth annual visit to John Carroll Monday. She emphasized to Ceanfaglione and Kerfoot, both 18 and residents of Bel Air, the need to “learn, learn, learn,” to avoid generalizations of people, to remember that most of the people in the world are good and to always smile.
“The best thing in life is to have a smile on your face, always have a smile on your face,” Shapiro said. “If you are mad at somebody, it takes [energy] out of you.”
Kerfoot highlighted the need to learn from people who survived the Holocaust “because they won’t be with us much longer.”
“To have someone who was an eyewitness and went through all this, she made a difference in my heart — not just today,” Ceanfaglione said of Shapiro.
Kerfot said he operates an antiques business, which brings him into contact with people from past generations and their possessions.
“I don’t take for granted one second of being able to spend time with people from past generations,” Kerfoot said.
Ceanfaglione expressed gratitude after listening to Shapiro’s stories, noting the older woman was going through vastly different experiences when she was Ceanfaglione’s age.
“It makes me grateful, to be able to go to school without any restrictions, to be able to play my favorite sports and to have the freedom to be myself,” said Ceanfaglione, who also said she is grateful for her family.