Holocaust survivors teach Maryland students about experiences

October 23, 2012

They remember what most would want to forget.

The war, the gas chambers, the starvation, the deaths.

They choose to honor the lives lost — with volunteer work, speeches and one small silver pin that carries their message, written in Hebrew.

“Remember,” it says, affixed to their lapels.

So they do.

Five Holocaust survivors spoke to 300 seventh-graders at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring on Tuesday morning to share their stories — and the stories of their families and friends, as well as strangers.

“I even myself don’t want to talk about it, but I think they should know these things,” said David Bayer. “It’s horror stories.”

They came as part of a program aimed at connecting curriculum with real life. The students are reading Anne Frank’s diary and “All but My Life,” the memoirs of a Polish woman who spent time in several work camps.

“Any time we can take something in history and actually bring participants, it’s huge,” said the school’s magnet coordinator, Matt Johnson.

The survivors, Halina Peabody, 79, and Henry Greenbaum, 84, both of Bethesda, and Nesse Godin, 84, Manny Mandel, 76, and Bayer, 90, all of Silver Spring, are volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District.

Tuesday’s event was the product of a partnership between the school and Montgomery College, according to art history professor Ken Jassie. This is the sixth time survivors have visited the middle school to talk to students.

The students seemed to be interested in the survivors, Johnson said, and were very attentive and asked questions.

“That’s a big deal for middle-schoolers,” he said.

Bayer told of how he was just weeks from turning 17 when the Germans invaded Poland. He lived through the ghetto, a labor camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, experimental surgery, death marches and several escape attempts, including one in which he was shot in the leg.

He had been held for six months when he finally got away. It was January 1945, and he found himself hiding in the woods near Auschwitz-Birkenau with two Russian prisoners, living on margarine and snow. Starving, they left the woods after six days, taking a chance.

They walked out to find that the Soviets had liberated the camp.

“A Russian picked me up and carried me like a sack of potatoes,” he said.

Seventh-grader Simon Gershunskiy, 12, of Rockville said he was moved by Bayer’s speech.

“The way that he speaks, because he’s experienced such horrors, it can really touch you,” Simon said.

“It was something that I’m very much going to remember,” he said.

Godin was 13 when the Nazis first came to her town in Lithuania.

“Just one year older than you guys,” she said with a thick accent to her audience of 12-year-olds. “My life changed.”

“What is a Jew?” Godin asked. “It’s not how we look. It’s how we pray.”

Godin grew up in a democratic Lithuania. Her mother owned a dairy store, and her father worked in the office of a shoe factory.

“As a Jewish little girl, I played with non-Jewish children,” she said.

But when the Germans came, Godin said neighbors turned on each other.

“It was not just the killer that killed,” she told the students, their eyes mesmerized by her. “Do we speak up for another human being?”

Godin’s father was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, deported to the camp Nov. 5, 1943, when his daughter was 15.

In 1944, Godin was taken to the Stutthof concentration camp, separated from her family and all her belongings. She became prisoner No. 54015.

She was given a dress, a pair of underwear and a pair of shoes and forced to dig cone-shaped holes in the ground.

“The labor was so hard,” she said, and people often died from starvation, exhaustion and diseases.

She began to pray for death, she said, but the women with her, who helped take care of her despite their own problems, said she had to live. Her life was a defeat against the Nazis, they told her.

“It was a miracle that I survived,” she said.

Godin has dedicated her work teaching about the Holocaust to those women, whom she credits with her survival, and wears her “remember’ pin in honor of them.

“When I put it on,” she said, “I always say, ‘Ladies, you helped me survive, and I remember you.’ ”

Mandel was the youngest survivor to address the students Tuesday.

He was raised in Budapest and was 8 when he was sent to Bergen-Belsen with his mother in 1944.

His father was drafted into a forced labor battalion that worked in Hungary and Ukraine, working at a very intermittent schedule — “as if he had been a traveling salesman.”

The three were reunited in 1946, and by 1949, they were all living in the United States.

In 2010, Mandel, his wife and his daughter visited Bergen-Belsen for the 65th anniversary of its liberation — an experience he called “more illuminating than anything else.”

The barracks that he and his mother had lived in were gone, and the only evidence left was parts of the foundation.

The main road outside his barracks looked like a golf course fairway, he said.

Godin told the students that it’s not enough to say “never again.” People have to take action.

There is still death, war and hate in the world. But she tells her story as a survivor of it all.

“Remember me,” Godin told the students. “Remember what I taught you.”

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