First, they couldn’t go to school with their classmates. Last, they were torn from their families in the shadow of the gas chambers.
Children had their own nightmarish experiences in the Holocaust, and Deborah Dwork chronicled it all.
In the final analysis, though, a child’s nightmarish experiences weren’t so different from an adult’s.
Take one of the earliest edicts preventing Jewish kids from going to school. “This shattered their world,” said Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “For as adults go to work, children, go to school.”
Dwork was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the annual Yom Hashoa Program at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. This year’s theme was “Children in the Holocaust.”
More than 1.5 million children died in the Holocaust, said Dwork, who authored a book on the subject, “Children with a Star.”
Yet for as long as possible, parents tried to shield their children, giving their world a modicum of sanity amid a storm of insanity.
In Rome, for instance, Jews actually started their own day school staffed with Jewish teachers who lost their jobs due to anti-Jewish edicts, Dwork said. In ghettos, teachers held classes, even in their homes when no classrooms were available. In the Kovno ghetto, Jews even started a vocational school for older kids.
Some children in Nazi-occupied countries used anti-Jewish edicts to find “a new kid of freedom,” Dwork said. One girl the professor mentioned grew up in a strict household, so she took advantage of curfews in her community to sleep over at her friends’ houses.
“Of course, life under the Nazis, was not a sleepover or slumber party,” Dwork said. “It was restricted until they could not live in their homes anymore.”
Dwork read first-person accounts of child survivors, who recalled being rousted from their beds by the SS, thrown onto trains bound for concentration camps, their parents in some cases shot if they tried to intervene.
Some families fled rather than be taken to camps. In most of those cases, Dwork said, those families were forced to separate since it was too difficult to hide together. Children recalled constantly changing their hiding places to avoid detection.
“Thirty to 40 addresses was not uncommon,” she said.
But too many were captured, and eventually sent to Auschwitz and other death camps. Dwork read accounts of arriving in the camps, being led by guards and snarling dogs off the cattle cars and into lines.
There, someone decided who would go to the left and who to the right — life or death.
In the end, Dwork told the capacity crowd, which consisted primarily of senior citizens and only a smattering of young people, that the Holocaust happened because too many people did not value the lives of individuals.
She equated the grisly episode in Jewish history to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which people mourned if a brick crashed to the ground but barely flinched if a man fell to his death.
As a Holocaust historian, “I focus on people — individual people,” Dwork said,” each of whom is unique, so that each of us don’t lose sight of what is most significant.”
United Jewish Federation Chair Daniel Shapira opened the program by reporting that funding for the Holocaust Center of the UJF rose last year, primarily because the UJF sought contributions from the non-Jewish community as well as the Jewish.
Last year, he said, that campaign raised $120,000 for the center, and Shapira expects to bring in $90,000 to $100,000 this year.
“As you know, what we’re teaching in the Holocaust Center is tolerance, and the absence of hatred,” Shapira said, so nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen again.”
Also at the program, Holocaust survivors Walter Boninger, Leon and Sarah Luel Brett, Solange Lebovitz, Sara
Reichman, Harry Schneider and
Seymour Solomon lit memorial candles for the six million Jews murdered. And Sister Maureen O’Brien, a religious studies instructor from Greensburg Central Catholic High School, lit a candle for the righteous gentiles.
Abe Salem sang the Partisan Song in Yiddish in what has become a tradition at the Yom Hashoa programs, and Kathleen Euler, a senior at North Allegheny Intermediate High School read her poem, “A Mother’s Empty Arms,” which won fourth place in the Holocaust Center’s 2008 Arts & Writing Competition.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)