Greensburg Community High School (GCHS) concluded its 2012 Chautauqua last week with a distinguished panel of five Holocaust survivors and a noted Holocaust education activist.
The panel, which answered questions from students of GCHS history teacher and Chautauqua coordinator John Pratt, included Moshe Baran, Magda Brown, Inge Auerbacher, Fred Gross, Conrad Weiner and Sandra Roberts.
Baran, Brown, Auerbacher, Gross and Weiner were born in 1920, 1927, 1934, 1936 and 1937, respectively. Each brought a harrowing story to the stage about surviving and escaping Hitler’s relentless, anti-Semitic killing machine, while most of their families perished.
Roberts is a middle school teacher from Whitwell, Tenn., whose student-produced “Paper Clips Project” in memory of Holocaust victims has gained international attention and spawned a 2004 documentary film released by Miramax Films.
The five survivors of the largest and most brutal and systematic mass killing in world history offered answers that were sometimes poignant, sometimes emotional and sometimes surprising. All agreed that recounting their ordeals was terribly painful, but necessary so that such atrocities are neither forgotten nor repeated.
Student Kylie Jones asked the first question: “What do you believe we can do about racism and hatred today?”
“Don’t be passive,” Weiner answered. “Don’t just follow orders. Stand up for what’s right.”
In answer to the same question, Auerbacher related the story of a family of Muslims living nearby in her apartment building in New York. Although the antipathy between Muslims and Jews is well documented throughout history, Auerbacher challenged her mostly teenage audience not to give into stereotypes, as she refused to do in the case of the Muslim family.
“In the presence of a lack of knowledge, people go with what they feel,” she said. “Get to know people who are different from you on a personal level.”
In answer to student Kaley Wood’s question, “Have you forgiven all the people who mistreated you?” Auerbacher responded, “I will never forgive the people who killed the 13 members of my family. I will never forget.”
She was quick to add, however, that she visits Germany at least once yearly and has many friends there.
The other panelists agreed that they, too, regularly visit Germany and have many German friends.
The evening’s most provocative question regarded the Holocaust’s impact on the panelists’ belief in a higher power: “How did the Holocaust influence your faith?”
Gross answered first. “That’s a tough question,” he said, “and I have no easy answers. Some days, I go to Synagogue and pray and feel like a real Jew. Some days, though, I don’t feel like God deserves my thanks. I was raised Orthodox Jew, but am no longer that. I’m now a Reformed Jew.”
Baran agreed the question is a difficult one, but conceded that it’s also a question all Holocaust survivors must confront. Instead of blaming God for the Holocaust, however, Baran said that he tries to focus not on why God deserted him during that terrible time, but why mankind deserted him and failed to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people.
“I do believe in God,” Brown responded. “I haven’t lost my faith. Too much has happened in my life, and I’ve survived too much for there not to be a God.”
Weiner sounded a more pessimistic note in his answer: “I’m a cultural Jew,” he said. “I believe in doing good, but I don’t understand how a God could let my family be killed.”
Asked if they think about the Holocaust on a daily basis, the panelists agreed the experience never leaves their hearts or minds.
“We’re living it on a daily basis,” Brown said, “by telling our stories.”
“This isn’t like changing your underwear,” Auerbacher said. “It’s always with you. You hear a train whistle and have a flashback.”
In answer to the question, Gross told about a flashback he had a few years ago in a restaurant when a train passed by outside.
“I thought it was an airplane at first,” he explained. “And I dove under a table, because it caused me to relive a time in childhood when we were escaping Nazi bombing raids in World War II.”
Afterward, Pratt characterized the 2012 Chautauqua as a great success.
“I think the speakers did a great job of conveying the fact that these were concentration camps, not summer camps,” he said, “but they did so without becoming overly graphic for their high-school-aged audience.”
The Chautauqua coordinator added that graphic depictions of the Holocaust, such as “Schindler’s List,” might be appropriate for older teens — assuming parental consent, of course. It’s important, however, he said, to ease students into the Holocaust, to be certain they gain a clear understanding of what it was and are mature enough and emotionally ready to deal in with graphic depictions of the subject.
The 2012 Chautauqua — which didn’t require parental consent — he said, fit very well in working toward those goals.
Pratt added that he was both pleased and humbled to be able to assemble five Holocaust survivors onto the same stage at once.
“Plenty of schools hold talks by Holocaust survivors,” he said, “but you can probably count on one hand the number of schools to host five survivors in one day, let alone five on the same stage at once.”
Contact: Rob Cox at 812-663-3111 x7011.