In 1945, when she was exactly the age 10th-grader Jahdese Lewis is now, Anita Schorr was the only one in her family to survive the Nazi death machine that killed six million Jews.
How did you learn to trust society again? Jahdese asked.
Schorr’s answer – you must work extremely hard at it— was exactly what Jahdese said she needed to hear in a world full of hatred.
Jahdese was one of about 70 tenth-graders in a rapt audience who gathered Tuesday afternoon to hear Holocaust survivor Schorr, who is now 84 years old, address Karen Robinson’s English and compositions students at the Engineering Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) at the city public school’s temporary home in Hamden.
Click here for the story of Schorr’s presentation ltwo years ago to an equally gripped full auditorium at Wilbur Cross High School.
In her talk Tuesday she offered visceral details that teens can relate to—spiking all-consuming hunger with inedible food, seeing her mother for the last time, bed bugs crawling over the body. She spoke of how she survived from age 11 to 15 through three concentration camps; cattle-car transportation; two selections by horrific Nazi experimenter Dr. Joseph Mengele; and death marches.
A retired advertising executive who knows how to connect with an audience, Schorr is on a mission. Last year she spoke not only at Cross but also at 46 other schools, houses of worship, and other institutions, mainly in Connecticut.
“There are so few of us [Holocaust survivors] left, and less who can stand up, and less that can remember,” Schorr said.
ESUMS was already the fourth school that Schorr has visited in 2014, with three more scheduled for January.
Schorr’s appearance was part of a “bullying to genocide” unit that Robinson combines with her students’ reading Night by Elie Wiesel and a visit to Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust .
On Tuesday students like Anna Khairi and Kush Patel (pictured)were seeing their English teacher for the first time since right before the break,during which they had visited the museum.
The point of the unit is to inspire an end to apathy. When the world looked the other way or refused to intervene, the Holocaust occurred. Today the prevention of, for example, small acts of bullying, one at a time, can cumulatively lead to the prevention of atrocities and mass murders, Robinson said.
As the kids walked in, Schorr arrayed photographs of her murdered upper-middle-class Czech family on, for example, a skiing trip to the Alps. Each of the kids was asked to pin on a ribbon that Robinson had provided. The blue ribbon was for strength, the white for peace.
Anna said she chose to pin Kush with the white for peace “because if I’m having a bad day, he cuts it all down to size,” she said.
When the presentation drew to a close in deep silence, hands were raised to ask questions, at first hesitantly.
One boy asked which are Schorr’s strongest memories. Schorr patiently reprised the collective sound —not musical, she said, just eerie sound—of the tin eating utensils each inmate wore on the belt and how they jangled from hundreds of emaciated waists.
If you lost your utensils, you got no food, and you died.
Then she recalled babies being ripped from their mother’s arms and thrown to die in a heap.
“That,” she said, “I can never forget.”
Referencing Night, Mohamed Kane asked, “Did you ever lose faith in God?”
Half of the survivors did, and half did not, Schorr answered. She was among those who did. She added: I believe in mankind. She spoke of how small acts by Wehrmacht soldier and a female SS guard that helped her survive. “I worked very hard not to let myself be dragged down by hatred,” she said.
Then Jahdese asked her question about learning to trust again. Schorr repeated how hard the work was—and is—to remind herself. But she didn’t give in to hatred and despair, she said. “By living a full life, I’m living the lives of people who didn’t have a chance.”
“That was the answer I needed to hear through all the hate in the world,” Jahdese said.
Jahdese asked about Schorr’s skiing, which she did with her family in the Alps, when she was only 8 years old, before Kristallnacht.
“I am[still] obsessed with skiing. I love it. Skiing for me is freedom,” Schorr told the class.
The students went off to collect their things and to their transportation home in the cold weather. Schorr stepped out into the hall to see the pledges to step up, stop bullying, to do the right thing, to speak out. The pledges were taped to the bulletin board outside the classroom.
Robinson assigned the student an essay for Wednesday based on the museum trip. The question to address: Which is more important and potent, an act of courage in standing up by an individual or by a group?