A Living History: The Importance of Holocaust Education for Nebraska's Youth

Paul Smith, a Holocaust literature teacher at Lincoln Southeast High School, listens to a student discussion of how the lessons from the Holocaust can be implemented in today's world (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
A crowd of around 100 gathered in the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol for the annual Nebraska Holocaust Commemoration. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
13 Holocaust survivors attended the 2013 Holocaust Commemoration ceremony at the Capitol. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Lincoln Southeast High School's Court Choir participated in the Holocaust Commemoration, singing several songs under the direction of Missy Noonan (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Holocaust survivors and other Jews from across Nebraska attend the Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony every year. These candles of remembrance will be lit in honor of all who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and the sacrifices the survivors had to endure. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Avi Knecht, a senior at Lincoln Southeast High School, gives the Commemoration address entitled "Never Again?" as Holocaust survivors, Jews, and residents from across eastern Nebraska listen. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Rabbi Craig Lewis (left) assists Dr. Thom Yaeger (right) in lighting a candle of remembrance. When he was two, Yaeger's mother put him into hiding in a Belgian convent. His father was deported to Auschwitz and killed. He was reunited with his mother at the age of five. Dr. Yaeger says the Belgians saved more Jewish children than any other country (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Dr. Fred Kader lights a candle of remembrance. As a child, Dr. Kader escaped deportation to Auschwitz three times. After the war, at the age of nine, an uncle found Kader and a great aunt raised him in Canada. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Ilse Kahn lights a candle of remembrance. Ilse was born in Germany. She was four years old in 1938 when her cousin, David Kaufmann of Grand Island, sponsored her and her family to make an escape to the United States. She says Kaufmann saved her family. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Marcel Kahn lights a candle of remembrance. Marcel is from Germany, and at the age of six, his family fled to the U.S. thanks to the help of David Kauffman. He grew up in Omaha where he married his childhood friend Ilse. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Bea Karp lights a candle of remembrance. In 1941, at the age of eight, Bea and her family were sent to a forced labor camp in southern France. When she was nine, the Jewish Underground in France freed Bea, but her parents were sent to Auschwitz and killed. When the war ended, lists of children were published and her grandmother in Israel found her. She was raised by an uncle in England. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Dr. Lou Leviticus lights a candle of remembrance. Dr. Leviticus was born in the Netherlands, where he went into hiding when the Nazis invaded. When the Nazis discovered Lou and his family were in hiding, they came to the Leviticus' home. 11-year-old Lou ran out the back door. He never saw his parents again. He spent most of the rest of the war in hiding and living with a resistance unit. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Ann Modenstein lights a candle of remembrance. Ann was born in Lithuania. She and her family were taken to the concentration camp when she was 13. She was taken to Poland and survived a number of camps. At 17 she was liberated but alone. She eventually met Eli Modenstein, and married him just two weeks later. After years in displaced persons camps, the two made their way to Lincoln. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Eli Modenstein lights a candle of remembrance. Eli was born in Poland and survived for more than four years in labor camps, including Auschwitz. On his arm, he bears the tattoo 76470, meaning over 76,000 men were processed in Auschwitz before him. He lost everyone in his large family. After the liberation and barely alive, he returned to his home where he met his soon-to-be bride Ann. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Rachel Rosenberg was 16-years-old when she was sent to live in a ghetto. She would eventually be sent to four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Her parents and three brothers were killed in the camps. Her two sisters were also at Auschwitz, but she saw them only once. The three were reunited after the war. She soon married, had a child, and moved to Omaha in 1949. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Rabbi Craig Lewis (right) assists Kitty Williams as she lights a candle of remembrance. She was born in Hungary, and moved to two ghettos in 1944. Like most other Hungarian Jews, she was taken to Auschwitz. After four months, she was taken to the Allendorf work camp, where she remained until her liberation. She married a U.S. serviceman, and moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1947. She says after leaving Europe with nothing, she's worked hard in the U.S. not to be a burden to the country. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Rabbi Craig Lewis, of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, leads the Mourner's Kadish, which is said as part of the mourning rituals in Judaism in all prayer services, as well as at funerals and memorials. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Paul Smith, a teacher at Southeast High School in Lincoln, speaks to students during a Holocaust literature class. Smith created the curriculum for the course and began teaching it in the spring of 2001. The class is now offered at all Lincoln high schools. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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May 16, 2013 - 6:30am

After World War II, Nebraska became home to numerous Holocaust survivors. For the last 68 years, many of those survivors shared their stories with Nebraska students. But soon, there may not be anyone left to give a firsthand account of the tragedy suffered at the hands of the Nazis.


On a cool spring afternoon in April, the theme to Schindler’s List echoed in the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol. More than 100 people, of all different ages, gathered at the Capitol for the annual Nebraska Holocaust Commemoration.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A large crowd gathered in the rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol for the annual Nebraska Holocaust Commemoration.

Paul Smith, a Holocaust literature teacher at Lincoln Southeast High School, chaired the event. As he addressed the crowd, which included 13 Holocaust survivors, he described the Holocaust as a state-sponsored persecution and murder of more than 11 million individuals.

It’s been 74 years since the Nazis invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II. Rachel Rosenberg, who now lives in Omaha, was 14 years old at the time.

“I had a wonderful home in Poland. I had a mother and three brothers and a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins and we were a beautiful family,” Rachel said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

A portrait of Rachel Rosenberg on display at the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha. Rosenberg was 16-years-old when the Nazis invaded Poland, where she lived in a small village.

Rachel lived in a small village. Her father was a cattle buyer at the local butchers.

After the Nazi invasion, her family was forced into a ghetto, where they shared a single house with five other families.

“We had no idea what the Germans [were] going to do to us. My mother said to me, ‘You know what Rachel, the Germans are cultured people, they’re not going to hurt us.'”

Sadly, Rachel soon learned her mother was wrong. Her family was split up, and sent to concentration camps.

“I was in Auschwitz with my little brother when they took him away straight to the gas chamber, 12 and a half years old, a beautiful thriving 12-year-old,” Rachel said, fighting through the tears as they began well up in her eyes.

By the end of the war, Rachel was a prisoner in four different concentration camps. She was a seamstress, and was forced to make the uniforms of her captors. When there was nothing to sew, Rachel said she was forced to perform hard labor as well—carrying large cement blocks around all day, with nothing but a morsel of bread to eat most days.

Rachel’s parents and three brothers were murdered in the camps. Rachel said at the time, she felt there was no hope.

She described how some prisoners lost the will to live. “Oh the fence! We were in Auschwitz, there were electric wires, and some people would go out in the morning and touch the wires and they died. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it,” she said.

After the war, Rachel made her way to Omaha, as did other survivors like Dr. Lou Leviticus.

“I was eight-years-old by date when the Germans invaded the Netherlands,” Lou said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Dr. Lou Leviticus (left) sits with other Holocaust Survivors at the Nebraska Holocaust Commemoration. Leviticus was 8-years-old and living in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. When Nazi soldiers came to his house, Lou escaped out the back door, but never saw his parents again.

Lou and his parents went into hiding until one day, the Nazis came to their home. 11-year-old Lou ran out the back door. Lou never saw his parents again. Lou said since his parents were “bad Jews,” they were taken to Auschwitz and killed.

Lou said he then spent most of the war with an organized resistance unit, going on what he called “adventures.”

Rachel Rosenberg and Lou Leviticus have each written books about their lives during the Holocaust. Rachel’s book is titled The Holocaust Scream and was a best-seller on Amazon.com. Lou self-published Tales from the Milestone under the pseudonym Ben Wajikra (Hebrew for “Son of Leviticus,” an homage to his father). Lou said sharing his story is the only way he knows how to hold-on to what he lost.

“As long as I live, I’ll try to keep it alive because that’s the only way I can keep the memory of my parents alive. If I stop talking, if I don’t do anything about it, they’re gone. They’re just gone. Nobody talks about them. Who knows about Max Leviticus? I do. So I talk,” Lou said.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Donna Walter, an education coordinator at the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha, stands in front of portraits of area Holocaust Survivors. Walter says around 22 survivors live in the Lincoln/Omaha area.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

This bronze sculpture is a reproduction of "Korczak with His Children" by Baruch Sketsiar. Janusz Korczak was a physician and educator in the Warsaw ghetto. He devoted his life to the plight of children, regardless of nationality or religion.  He refused to abandon the Jewish orphans when they were taken to the death camps of Treblinka in 1942. A decision he made at the expense of his own life. He is universally considered a saint and a martyr. "Korczak with His Children" was installed at Israel's National Holocaust Memorial in 1978.

 

The importance of Lou, Rachel, and other survivors sharing their stories cannot be understated. According to the U.S.  Holocaust Memorial Museum, no one knows exactly how many people survived the Holocaust. After the camps were liberated, many people still died of malnutrition and disease.

The Institute of Holocaust Education in Omaha said after the war, around 65 survivors made it to Nebraska. Today, just 22 remain.

While there are fewer and fewer survivors each year, nearly 60,000 interviews with Holocaust survivors from 56 countries have been recorded as part of Steven Spielberg’s Shoa Foundation.

“Of course there’s nothing better than that personal contact with the survivors,” said Donna Walter, a coordinator at the IHE. Walter said the IHE works primarily with teachers from around Nebraska, educating them on how to best talk to students about the Holocaust.

It’s a vital mission, according to Walter, since today’s youth will be the last generation to hear directly from Holocaust survivors. Walter said since there are already Holocaust deniers today, she’s afraid what will happen in 10 to15 years, when there may not be anyone alive who can stand up and say they were there. They lived through it.

“Our survivors are aging and we are losing our survivors. [They] provide a face to history. This is a person that lived this history. It’s a person. We want to make that personal contact with our students,” Walter said.

In 2001, Paul Smith started making it personal for his students, when he began a Holocaust literature class at Lincoln Southeast High School. Today, the class is taught at every high school in Lincoln.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Paul Smith, a teacher at Lincoln Southeast High School, holds a discussion with his students during a Holocaust literature class. Smith created the curriculum for the class and began teaching it in 2001. It is now offered at all Lincoln area high schools.

Smith said he started the class because of his fascination with man’s inhumanity towards man.

“I think of the people who were killed [in the Holocaust] and what they could have been? Could we have had a physician who could have discovered a cure for cancer? Was there an artist in there? We know we lost husbands and wives and sisters and brothers and so forth, but what did our world community lose during that time period?” Smith questioned.

As part of his curriculum, Smith invites Holocaust survivors to speak to his students every semester. He knows, however, the time is coming when there won’t be anyone left to give those firsthand accounts.  He said because of that, he’s doing everything he can now, so his students will be able to pass on the lessons they learn to the next generation.

“If their perspective broadens and they try to walk in another person’s shoe, that’s a life-time lesson. Do I expect them to run for government and change our world? No, but I want them to change their corner of it. I want them to be a good husband, a good wife, a good neighbor,” Smith said.

With just 22 survivors left in Nebraska, Smith said it’s important society doesn’t let their stories become just another entry in the history books. By doing this, he said society can come closer to the goal of making the post-Holocaust cry of “Never Again” truly become a reality.

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