RHHS 10th graders were granted a once in a lifetime experience when Holocaust survivors Chaim Melamed and Vera Hoffman visited with a small group of students last Tuesday. Chaim and Vera spoke with students on everything from the time before the war, to the concentration camps, to their eventual liberation. Throughout their talk Mr. Melamed brought up several times that there was simply not enough time to truly explain everything. He explained that he could easily talk for 10 hours just explaining his personal story. He kept saying that he didn’t know where to begin, as there was just so much that happened, and so much that needed to be said. I am having similar feelings as I attempt to explain all he and Mrs. Vera talked about.
Chaim and Vera began by telling the audience background about themselves such as where they were born, and what their life was like before war broke out in Europe. Both expressed strongly that they had felt no different than anyone else before the war, and the extreme confusion that they felt when they began to be discriminated against by people who had, but weeks before, been their friends. Mr. Melamed lived in Poland, the first country to fall to Hitler and his Nazis, whereas Hungarian Vera didn’t see any hostile Germans for some time afterwards. But no matter when the horrors of the war came, they were always sudden and unexpected, leaving the now ostracized and oppressed people asking themselves, "What happened?"
Both survivors spoke of the horrors of the terribly overcrowded ghettos, and the infamous ‘cattle cars’ in which they were transported from place to place. In fact, Mr. Chaim alleged that no one who experienced the Holocaust could tell you virtually the same thing as the horrors were so widespread. Mr. Melamed touched thoroughly on the concentrations camps, such as Auschwitz where he was held for a time, where Jewish people along with other targeted ethnicities were systematically exterminated; calling them ‘factories of death’. Chaim said at one point in reference to all the atrocities being performed in Europe, "Germany’s main industry was killing Jews, and they killed 10,000 a day" But I believe the most powerful image that Mr. Chaim used was the fact that out of the 6,250 people that lived in the village where he was born, he is the sole survivor. To think that entire town’s populaces were just erased, for lack of a better word, is something truly unnerving, and almost too unreal to someone who hasn’t experienced a tragedy of such magnitude to comprehend.
What I liked best about Chaim and Vera’s presentation is that they left a large amount of time for students to ask questions. This allowed the students to not only learn more about particular points of interest that they had, but to better bond with the survivors and grasp the fact that this really happened, and these people were there. I believe it’s easy to detach oneself and not fully understand the brutal reality of the Holocaust and similar tragedies when you simply watch movies, or read about them in school. I personally believe that if you don’t experience something like that, you will never truly understand the audacity of it, but talking to someone who was there could, and has, brought students many steps closer to understanding what actually happened; these are real people who have been through this, not just statistics in a textbook.
The main reason Chaim and Vera do this, touring the coastal empire teaching teens and other age groups about the terrors of the holocaust, is to prevent it from ever happening again. They both expressed a great deal of concern for the situation in Darfur and other areas of the world where virtually the same thing is happening. When asked if they thought another Holocaust could happen they immediately said that yes, it could easily happen if we do not learn from our mistakes and move forward as a worldwide community. Because of this, their plan is to teach, and enlighten the young world of its horrific past, so that it may remain just that, the past.
I cannot thank Chaim and Vera enough for coming to RHHS. I feel personally honored to have been able to hear them speak, and I know it’s something that the students will treasure for the rest of their lives and without doubt learn from. For in the future it will be up to our generation to stop things like the holocaust from happening again. I believe Chaim put it best when he said, "It’s your world now."
One student's reaction
I was interested in hearing how the students would react to Chaim and Vera’s presentation. The general mood of the crowd seemed to be one of reverent interest and stunned silence. However, when I asked students about their feelings, I found them to be much more vocal. I spoke with 10th grader Shannon Bryant on what she thought about this firsthand encounter with history.
Q: What were your first reactions to this experience?
A: I was thrilled to learn that I would have the opportunity to hear the speakers. My high expectations were fully met when the event finally came. Many of the stories shared were more powerful than I can describe in words, and they were delivered very calmly and deliberately. The strength that it must have taken the speakers to relate these events in such a manner is truly incomprehensible. Their dedication to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to create awareness is beyond description and truly an inspiration.
Q: What is something you’ve learned from hearing Chaim and Vera speak?
A: I now realize how poor my supposed understanding of the injustices of the Holocaust truly was. I cannot comprehend how deserted the Jews were during the Holocaust, and I cannot comprehend why they were left to suffer as they did, but the talk did give me a glimpse at the truth that has made me more aware of this genocide. I was shocked to learn that the gas chambers of certain camps were located in the middle of towns, and yet nothing was done to prevent the killing.
Q: What do you plan to do with the knowledge you have gained here?
A: (Though the statement is cliché) We are the future. So many know, or think they know, of the terror and cruelty made real in the Holocaust , and yet these same people remain blind to the same prejudice and inhumanity that is still very much alive and well in our world. It will soon be my generation’s chance to fight this hatred, and with the knowledge we gain from understanding the past, we will hopefully be prepared.
Q: Why is it important that people like Chaim and Vera speak about the Holocaust?
A: The Holocaust is unfortunately becoming just another event in history. Though the deaths and other such statistics are remembered, the terrible lesson it should have taught the world is being forgotten. Very few of those I know speak of the Holocaust with the passion it once demanded; neither do they concern themselves with the cruelty that dominates the countries beyond our own. We as Americans need an occasional reminder of the past, and thereby an awakening to the present. We cannot forget, for when we forget, history will repeat itself.