Fifteen States now mandate Holocaust Education–and that list is growing. HAMEC can provide virtual programs for your school, congregation and civic group. Wherever you are – be it the United States, Canada, India or Australia – we can to serve you world-wide.
Through Google Meet, Skype and Zoom, we can bring the latest in Holocaust education to you. Request a program today.
The Holocaust Awareness and Education Center honored Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel Senior Rabbi Lance H. Sussman, left, virtually on Sept. 10 with its fourth annual Excellence in Education Award.
Sussman was recognized for “exceptional leadership, dedication, and outstanding contributions to advocating for and promoting the fields of Holocaust studies and education, which advance the values and mission of HAMEC,” which recently relocated to KI’s Elkins Park campus.
During his keynote address, Sussman detailed the story of his mother’s family’s escape from Nazi Germany. The Sacki family left the Bavarian city of Bamberg in 1938-’39, initially resettling in New York City and Baltimore.
Sussman is chair-elect of the board of governors at Gratz College, an honorary trustee at Delaware Valley University and is working on a television documentary about the history of the Philadelphia Jewish community.
The daughter and son-in-law of Holocaust survivors have endowed a $25,000 scholarship fund at Stockton University to assist students interested in Holocaust and genocide studies, university officials said Friday.
Ann and Howard Rosenberg created the Jadzia and David Greenbaum Memorial Scholarship to honor Ann’s parents, who met in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after World War II, according to a news release from the school.
Natives of Poland, the Greenbaums survived labor and death camps and later immigrated to America, settling in New York City. In 1951, they bought a chicken farm in the McKee City neighborhood that straddles Egg Harbor and Hamilton townships. In 1957, they moved to Atlantic City, then in 1978 moved to Margate.
During those years, they ran a construction business and raised four children, according to the release. Jadzia was an active member of the Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center Executive Committee at Stockton.
Last summer, the Rosenbergs, who live in Toledo, Ohio, visited the Holocaust Center during a trip to Atlantic City, officials said.
“Everyone there was so excited about what they are doing, and they told us about the programs and new exhibits and how students were involved,” Ann Rosenberg said. “When we went home, Howard and I started talking about a scholarship.”
Rosenberg said her father never talked much about his experience during the war, but her mother did.
“I knew they were both Holocaust survivors, and most of their friends were also,” Rosenberg said. “There were three families on our block who were all survivors.”
The Holocaust Center is developing a digital exhibition of South Jersey Holocaust survivor stories, according to the release. One exhibit will focus on survivors who came to South Jersey to operate chicken farms in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.
The first scholarship will be awarded during the 2021-22 academic year and is open to undergraduate and graduate students who have shown interest in Holocaust and genocide studies and are in good academic standing with a GPA of at least 3.0.
Ann Rosenberg said she and her husband also are planning a second scholarship for Stockton students from Atlantic City in memory of Howard’s parents, who owned a grocery store in the city.
“We hope this might inspire others,” Ann Rosenberg said of the scholarships.
Leo Schoffer, chairman of Stockton’s Board of Trustees, said he had the pleasure of knowing the Greenbaums.
“I feel they would be proud and touched that their children value the remembrance of the Holocaust, and have created a scholarship for students dedicated to preserving the memory of those who perished in the Shoah,” Schoffer said.
We enter the Jewish New Year in difficult times. We are happy to report that our important mission is continuing unabated.
As the new school year begins, HAMEC will be providing virtual programming with our Survivors and Liberators, not only to schools in other states and countries, as we have been doing for several years, but this year to schools in the Philadelphia area as well. The good news is that we have already received requests from dozens of teachers for presentations.
Sadly, we mourn the loss of our beloved friends, Joe Kahn, Annaliese Nossbaum, Manya Perel and Gunter Hauer. They were wonderful people who dedication much of their important lives to educating young–and in fact all people about the danger of hatred, especially when it is state sponsored. We miss them and will work hard to ensure that their message and their mission, OUR mission goes on.
And of course, our great staff, with the help of our interns and volunteers, have been hard at work through out the summer setting up our new home at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. We look forward to the time we can all come together there.
May we have a wonderful New Year and may we all stay safe and be written into the Book of Life.
A nationwide survey released Wednesday shows a “worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge” among adults under 40, including over 1 in 10 respondents who did not recall ever having heard the word “Holocaust” before.
The survey, touted as the first 50-state survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Generation Z, showed that many respondents were unclear about the basic facts of the genocide. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of those thought the death toll was fewer than 2 million. Over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos were established during World War II, but nearly half of U.S. respondents could not name a single one.
“The most important lesson is that we can’t lose any more time,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which commissioned the study. “If we let these trends continue for another generation, the crucial lessons from this terrible part of history could be lost.”
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored mass persecution and murder of millions of people under the Nazi regime and its collaborators. The genocide campaign targeted groups believed by Adolf Hitler’s government to be biologically inferior because of anti-Semitism, homophobia or the like. Using tactics like gas wagons, concentration camps and firing squads, the regime targeted the Jewish people in particular for annihilation and killed nearly 2 of every 3 European Jews by 1945.
The lack of Holocaust knowledge demonstrated in the study is “shocking” and “saddening,” said the Claims Conference, a nonprofit that works to secure material compensation for Holocaust survivors. The survey’s data came from 11,000 interviews across the country, conducted by phone and online with a random, demographically representative sample of respondents ages 18 to 39. It was led by a task force that included Holocaust survivors, historians and experts from museums, educational institutions and nonprofits.
The findings raise concerns not just about Holocaust ignorance, but also about Holocaust denial. Just 90 percent of respondents said they believed that the Holocaust happened. Seven percent were not sure, and 3 percent denied that it happened. One of the most disturbing revelations, the survey noted, is that 11 percent of respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust. The number climbs to 19 percent in New York, the state with the largest Jewish population.
“There is no doubt that Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism,” said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. “And when we fail to actively remember the facts of what happened, we risk a situation where prejudice and anti-Semitism will encroach on those facts.”
Part of the problem may be social media, experts say. The survey shows that about half of millennial and Gen Z respondents have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts online. Fifty-six percent reported having seen Nazi symbols on social media or in their communities within the past five years.
“We take down any post that celebrates, defends, or attempts to justify the Holocaust,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. “The same goes for any content that mocks Holocaust victims, accuses victims of lying about the atrocities, spews hate, or advocates for violence against Jewish people in any way.”
In countries where Holocaust denial is illegal, such as Germany, France and Poland, Facebook takes steps to restrict access in accordance with the law, the spokesperson said.
“We know many people strongly disagree with our position — and we respect that,” the spokesperson said. “It’s really important for us to engage on these issues and hear from people to understand their concerns. We have a team that is dedicated to developing and reviewing our policies and we welcome collaboration with industry, experts and other groups to ensure we’re getting it right.”
The social media debate is part of a larger reckoning over the Holocaust’s place in American memory. With fewer living Holocaust survivors who can serve as eyewitnesses to the genocide and with a new wave of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe, some worry that the seven-decade rallying cry “never forget” is being forgotten. Disturbingly, the majority of adults in the poll believed that something like the Holocaust could happen again, the survey found.
“When you learn the history of the Holocaust, you are not simply learning about the past,” Lipstadt said. “These lessons remain relevant today in order to understand not only anti-Semitism, but also all the other ‘isms’ of society. There is real danger to letting them fade.”
While most respondents first learned about the Holocaust in school, the survey’s findings suggest that education may be incomplete. The Holocaust is associated with World War II, but 22 percent of respondents thought it was associated with World War I. Ten percent were not sure, 5 percent said the Civil War, and 3 percent said the Vietnam War.
Certain states mandate Holocaust education in school, and the majority of survey participants said the subject should be compulsory. But there was not a direct correlation between states that mandate Holocaust education and positive survey results, Schneider said.
Respondents in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Massachusetts ranked highest in Holocaust knowledge, even though those states do not require Holocaust education, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Respondents in New York, Indiana and California — which do require Holocaust education — were most likely to believe the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated, at rates higher than 20 percent of the surveyed population.
“Holocaust education is extremely local,” Schneider said. “Teachers are the heroes in this story, particularly this year, where the challenges are beyond imaginable. In general, teachers can be overwhelmed in classrooms with the content and the lack of time and resources. Really, what we’re trying to do is make sure proper training and resources and support is available to teachers across the country.”
Eyewitness testimony is the most powerful tool available to educators, said Gretchen Skidmore, director of education initiatives at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“There is nothing that can replace the stories of survivors in Holocaust education,” Skidmore said. “It is very meaningful when you see a student listening to a survivor, hearing how individuals responded to this watershed event in human history and thinking not only what would I have done but what will I do with the choices I face today.”
Still, educators are preparing for the day when there are no more living Holocaust survivors to join the classroom, including efforts to digitize their stories.
“The fact that that recorded testimony exists and is being collected and maintained is a really useful tool now, and it will continue to be a useful tool in the future,” said Ariel Behrman, who heads the Anti-Defamation League’s Echoes & Reflections program, a Holocaust education program in partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California and Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
The Echoes & Reflections program has reached over 14,250 schools and 72,000 teachers at no cost to educators, according to its website.
“The interest is there, without a doubt,” Behrman said. “Teachers really do seek us out. There are a lot of things students can learn from the past and from those who experienced the Holocaust. There are also contemporary connections to be made, and students can apply what they learned to their world today.”
These days, Holocaust education is about teaching more than just facts, Behrman said. Last week, Echoes & Reflections released a national survey of 1,500 college students, which found that high school Holocaust education was associated with students’ being more empathetic, tolerant and socially responsible. Students with Holocaust education reported themselves to be more likely to stand up to negative stereotyping, for example, and more willing to challenge incorrect or biased information.
Learning about the Holocaust is valuable, adults overwhelmingly agreed in the survey. Eighty percent of the Claims Conference survey respondents agreed that it was important to learn about the Holocaust partly so it never happens again.
“We’ve seen it time and time again,” Schneider said. “Education is the best way to prevent ignorance and to prevent hate.”
Almost two-thirds of millennials, Gen Z don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, survey finds
Almost two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zers don’t know that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and almost half can’t name a single concentration camp, an alarming new survey on Holocaust knowledge has found.
The survey demonstrated wide gaps in younger American’s knowledge of the genocide while also showing a concerning 15% of millennials and Gen Zers thought holding neo-Nazi views was acceptable.
“How much of that is based on genuine understanding of neo-Nazis principles and how much is based on ignorance is hard to tell. Either of them is very disturbing,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which commissioned the survey.
“If people can’t name Auschwitz … that’s something that’s deeply concerning. I don’t think there is any greater symbol of man’s depravity in recent history than Auschwitz,” he added.
The survey is the fifth in a series that looks at people’s knowledge of Holocaust history worldwide as well as education around the genocide.
The survey of 1,000 18- to 39-year-olds in all 50 states also provided the first state-by-state breakdown of Holocaust knowledge in the U.S. In New York, for example, which ranked among the bottom 10 states in an analysis of Holocaust knowledge, nearly 20% of millennials and Gen Zers incorrectly believe that Jews caused the Holocaust.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
That sort of denial and distortion around the causes of the Holocaust “is a form of anti-Semitism,” said Gretchen Skidmore, the director of education initiatives for the Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Another concerning finding in the Claims Conference survey: Almost half of respondents had seen social media posts denying or distorting facts about the Holocaust, and more than half said they had seen Nazi symbols in their community or online.
Taylor said these results demonstrate how the internet “has given a voice to and amplified Holocaust denial in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Approximately 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power in Germany in the 1930s. Jews and other groups were targeted by the Nazis and their allies on beliefs of perceived racial inferiority. Millions were sent to ghettos, labor camps and concentration camps and killed in mass shootings, gas chambers and from starvation.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. today share an affinity for Hitler and Nazis fascist political ideology while also focusing on hatred toward Jews and minority groups.
In a 2018 survey, almost a third of Americans incorrectly believed 2 million or fewer Jewish people died in the Holocaust. More than 40% of respondents in that survey also could not identify Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp located in German-occupied Poland.
“In order to understand the importance of this history, there are certain fundamental aspects of it that you need to understand,” Skidmore said. Knowing the basic facts allow people to then “go to the next level” and think critically about the causes and other enduring questions, she added.
Taylor said that the state-by-state data in this year’s survey will prove valuable for individual states where there can be more targeted changes to how educators teach Holocaust history.
The survey found that 8 in 10 respondents believe continued Holocaust education is important to prevent it from happening again. That education becomes all the more important, Taylor noted, as fewer Holocaust survivors are still living.
“On the one hand, you have this very worrying lack of knowledge, but on the other hand, you see see this hunger to learn,” Taylor said.
Exterior of Milan’s Holocaust Memorial at the site of the notorious Platform 21, where Jews were deported to death camps during World War II. (Times of Israel)
HAMEC is ready for the school year ahead. Fifteen States now mandate Holocaust Education–and that list is growing. HAMEC can provide virtual programs for your school, congregation and civic group. Wherever you are – be it the United States, Canada, India or Australia – we can to serve you world-wide.
Through Google Meet, Skype and Zoom, we can bring the latest in Holocaust education to you. Request a program today.
EXCLUSIVE: Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) and rising Brit actor Johnny Flynn (Emma) are attached to star in One Life, a feature drama based on the true story of British humanitarian Nicholas Winton, who helped save hundreds of children from the Nazis on the eve of World War II.
Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl) and Nick Drake (Romulus) have co-written the screenplay based on the extraordinary story of Nicholas “Nicky” Winton who, when just 29 years old, championed the rescue of refugee children out of Czechoslovakia, under threat from Hitler’s death camps, to the safety of British foster families.
Battling public apathy, political hostility and bureaucratic obstruction, he succeeded in rescuing 669 children — many of them Jewish — before the war broke out, the borders closed and the mission was abruptly ended. Half a century later, Winton famously had a surprise reunion with the grown children whose lives he saved in a powerful and emotional moment captured on TV as part of the award-winning BBC TV show That’s Life.
Hopkins and Flynn will both play the role of Winton at different stages of his life.
Lion and The King’s Speech outfit See-Saw is producing the film with Aisling Walsh (Maudie) set to direct. The film will be executive produced by Rose Garnett for BBC Films,and See-Saw’s COO of Film Simon Gillis. BBC Films developed with See-Saw.
FilmNation Entertainment, alongside See-Saw’s in-house sales arm Cross City Films, will be managing international sales which will be launched at the virtual Toronto Film Festival market this week. UTA Independent Film Group will be co-repping the U.S. alongside FilmNation and Cross City.
Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who are producing with Joanna Laurie, said, “Despite never wanting any attention for his altruistic act, Nicky’s story and the story of those he saved must be told. To be a part of sharing this moment in history with the world is an extraordinary privilege. Anthony and Johnny are without a doubt the right people to bring Lucinda and Nick’s beautifully crafted screenplay about this amazing man to life.”
Silence of the Lambs and The Remains of the Day legend Hopkins has recently starred in HBO’s Westworld, Netflix’s The Two Popes and Florian Zeller’s acclaimed feature The Father.
Actor and musician Flynn most recently starred in the movie Emma alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Josh O’Connor. He broke out in Michael Pearce’s BAFTA-winning thriller Beast and secured a string of roles in upcoming movies including David Bowie film Stardust, See-Saw Films’ WWII drama Operation Mincemeat, and Simon Stone’s The Dig for Netflix. He has also been cast as Dickie Greenleaf in Showtime’s new TV series Ripley with Andrew Scott.
Film about Kindertransport hero Sir Nicholas Winton stars Anthony Hopkins
‘The British Schindler’ who saved 669 mainly Jewish children from the Nazis will be depicted in ‘One Life’ for BBC Films
Sir Nicholas Winton was the architect of the Kindertransport
A feature film about the life of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved 669 children from the Nazis, is in production with Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in the lead role.
“One Life” has Hopkins playing an older Winton, Deadline Hollywood reported. Johnny Flynn portrays the young Winton.
Winton, who is nicknamed “the British Schindler,” died in 2015 at the age of 106.
The baptised son of Jewish parents, Winton was a 29-year-old stockbroker when he arrived in Prague in December 1938. He was planning to go on a skiing holiday in Switzerland, but changed his plans when he heard about the refugee crisis in Czechoslovakia, which had just been occupied by the Nazis.
In the following nine months, he organised eight trains that carried children, the vast majority of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia to safety in Britain.
Winton’s heroism was unremarked until the 1980s, when his wife found evidence of the rescues. The discovery led to a surprise reunion with some of the children and a documentary. The Royal Mail’s Sir Nicholas Winton’s stamp – issued following a Jewish News campaign backed by 106,000 people.
Winton received many honours in his later years, including a knighthood. In March 2016, Royal Mail announced it would produce a unique stamp featuring the humanitarian, after a Jewish News campaign.
The “Schindler” reference is to the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving some 1,200 Jews in the Holocaust. His story was made into the Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg.
Aisling Walsh is directing “One Life,” which was developed by BBC Films with See-Saw Films.
The majority of French young people aged 15-24 have learned the history of the Holocaust at school, according to a poll published on Sunday. But the Union of Jewish Students of France (UEJF) regrets that these lessons are not available in one in ten classrooms. Advertising
Some 87 percent of the young people questioned said they had already heard about the Holocaust, 95 percent of them had heard about the gas chambers and for 80 percent of them, they had learned about this at school, according to a poll conducted by Ifop for the UEJF and French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, published on Sunday.
Carried out from September 4 to 9, the survey was published to tie in with a ceremony in remembrance of the deportees and victims of the Shoah, commemorated on Sunday with a service at the Great Synagogue of Paris located in the rue de la Victoire, Paris.
“We can congratulate ourselves on the progress made in society thanks to schools educating young people about the Shoah. Some 68 percent of the young people surveyed said they knew about the Vel’d’Hiv Roundup, whereas in 2012 they were only a third,” the UEJF said in a statement.
Vel’ d’Hiv was the name given to a mass arrest of more than 13,000 Jews in Paris by French police on July 16 and 17, 1942. Many of them were temporarily held in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vél d’Hiv) stadium. They were then sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. In 1995, then French President Jacques Chirac apologised for France’s complicity in this atrocity.
Commitment of schools
According to the UEJF, “these figures are proof that the schools’ commitment as well as of the many other parties involved, such as the survivors who testify or the associations at work, are bearing fruit”.
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Despite the encouraging results, one in ten students surveyed found it was impossible to learn about the Shoah in their class, while 21 percent noted the many criticisms and questions from other students during lessons about the subject.
“[We’re] alarmed at these particularly high figures,” the UEJF wrote. “They bear witness to latent anti-Semitism in some French classes. How can you be a Jewish pupil if anti-Semitism is so present that it is impossible to talk about the Shoah?”
The survey also revealed the influence of Holocaust denial statements on online video platforms and social networks. Nearly one in three (29 percent) of the young people questioned said they had already read or viewed content questioning the existence of the Holocaust. Of these, 57 percent have learned about these denial theories on Youtube and 40 percent on Facebook.
The UEJF wants social platforms to take more responsibility for their online content saying these figures “demonstrate once again that platforms must urgently make a real commitment not to undo everything taught in schools by allowing the simple and rapid spread of antisemitic content”.
Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser believes it is crucial that Holocaust curricula continue to teach compassion even in the most difficult circumstances.
“Hatred has to stop. You have to learn to live side by side, and appreciate the differences rather than hate them,” he said.
The Las Vegas-based educator partnered with the USC Shoah Foundation to release the ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum, a subsidiary of ZACHOR Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, in August. The free online teaching tool was designed as a way to make Holocaust education more accessible to schools short on funds and teachers short on time.
Now, it helps provide online education to students learning from home due to the pandemic.
Educators like Lesser are working to teach students about the Holocaust in the midst of unprecedented disruptions to learning. Teaching such a complicated and emotional topic remotely is challenging, but not impossible, they say.
Temple Sholom in Broomall teaches seventh grade religious school students about the Holocaust and plans to continue the curriculum this year. Cantor Jamie Marx said many aspects of the class, including independent research by students and discussions based on short videos, transition online easily. However, some in-person activities are more difficult to replicate.
“One of the main challenges is that we built a curriculum that moved from discussion-based activities to movement- and play-based activities, and it’s something we’re still working through,” he said.
In 2019, Communications Associate Marissa Kimmel organized a project where students role-played as groups of passengers on the MS St. Louis, the German liner carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees that both the United States and Canada refused to accept in 1939.
She plans to use Zoom to teach the lesson again this year. Since many of her students are home in front of a computer all day, she wants to keep the material as interactive as possible to keep them engaged.
Another key component of Holocaust education is live survivor testimony, and organizations are working to connect students with these speakers online.
The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center has transitioned its Witness to History Project, which brings survivors to schools to share their stories, to virtual platforms for the upcoming academic year.
Education Director Geoffrey Quinn said HAMEC spent the summer trying to identify the most user-friendly software available for survivors, since they could no longer invite facilitators into their homes to help them navigate the technology.
Central High School in Philadelphia hosts its Holocaust Symposium, which brings survivors to the school to tell their stories to students, in the spring. Faculty are preparing for the possibility of a virtual event in 2021.
“I’d like to have the speakers, if we can, on Zoom or Google Meet, but if we have to rely on tape testimony we’ll do that as well,” said Mike Horwits, a government and social science teacher.
He added that Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is going to offer opportunities to hear from survivors online.
He said a virtual speaker event using Zoom’s chat feature can give technologically savvy students a better chance to interact with the speaker, especially those who might feel shy asking a question in a crowded auditorium.
Lesser’s ZACHOR Holocaust Curriculum website consists of seven lessons based on Lesser’s life along with short video clips and activities. It features an artificial intelligence model of Lesser that can answer questions from students about his experiences in ghettos, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau.
“We made it in such a way that you can teach a little bit about the Holocaust, or more, or the whole story. It’s left up to each teacher, but it’s there. And I’m hoping they’ll teach the whole story,” Lesser said. Educators who teach the Holocaust are taking care to be sensitive to the fact that many students learning upsetting or graphic information are already stressed due to the instability of the pandemic.
Quinn said HAMEC’s speakers are cognizant of these difficulties, and one survivor, Ruth Hartz, addressed the health crisis during a virtual presentation at Elkins Park School in the spring. She drew a connection between coronavirus-induced isolation and her childhood experiences hiding from the Nazis in France.
Kim Blevins-Relleva, program coordinator of education initiatives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said teachers are rethinking how they present Holocaust material due to concerns about being able to gauge students’ reactions to emotional content from a screen.
“Teachers are just very thoughtful about still presenting the content, but doing it responsibly in a way to honor students’ emotional receptiveness, especially given what’s going on in the world,” she said.
She said USHMM always encourages teachers to think carefully about showing graphic images to students and consider approaches that emphasize the humanity of Holocaust victims. The museum recently created an online lesson plan about diaries during the Holocaust with this goal in mind. “It’s a way for students to connect with the history and connect with individuals, but it’s not graphic,” she said.
Ernie Gross learned to find hope and humor in the darkest of places.
It was not an easy task for Gross, who from a very young age was known as “the boy who never laughed.”
When he did laugh as a child, banging pots and pans with his older brother David, his mother would scold him. “How can you laugh and enjoy yourself when you don’t know what’s happening with your father?” she would say.
His father had left home when Gross was just 7 to work in Argentina for four years. Upon his return, didn’t recognize his young son, a rejection that crushed the boy’s spirit. At school, his teacher ignored him, turning the other way when classmates mocked his kosher lunch, held him down, and rubbed ham and bacon on his lips.
“My youth was going from bad to worse,” said Gross.
That was before Hungarian soldiers showed up at his home in Romania on the last day of Passover in April 1944. They forced Gross, his six siblings and parents from their home and told them to go to the town’s synagogue or be shot. Weeks later, they were boarded on a crowded cattle train destined for Auschwitz.
What came next took decades to reveal.
From his home in Northeast Philadelphia one recent day, Gross told his story through his thick Romanian accent, painting a vivid picture of a harrowing journey that took more than 60 years to disclose, even to his three children.
His early years, shaped by hate and horror, reflect a dark time burdened by sorrow but never devoid of hope. Ironically, in his pursuit to shed what he calls the “selfish mindset of survival,” he found forgiveness, charity and the healing power of humor and laughter.
Today, the 91-year-old is among a declining number of Holocaust survivors alive and able to share his story. This year marks the 75th anniversary of his liberation from Dachau, and Gross continues to speak at synagogues, churches, rotary events and now on Zoom calls to spread the message that hope prevails above hate.
It’s a message, he says, that’s as relevant to surviving in today’s world as it was that day he stepped off the train.
‘I didn’t have a name’
He was just 15 then.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, Gross lost sight of his parents, who were ahead holding onto his younger sister and brother. Surrounded by German soldiers, Gross stood in a line with his two older brothers, and noticed a prisoner working at the camp looking at him.
When the soldiers weren’t looking, the prisoner jumped off the train and approached him. “How old are you? You better say you’re 17. Because if you’re 15, you’ll go where your parents went.”
The man pointed to the sky. “You see the dark smoke? In four hours, it’s going to be your parents.”
Gross watched as an SS officer directed his brothers to the right, in the direction of those going to the work camp. In the other direction were the gas chambers.
“My turn came,” Gross recalled. The guard was silent. “He was not saying anything … That made me more nervous. He was scanning me, trying to figure out where to put me.” Gross mustered up the nerve to act older. “I’m going to stand up straight and tall and (talk) strongly. When I did that, he told me to go to the right.”
He joined his two brothers as they stood in a big building packed with prisoners. They didn’t say a word about the fate of their parents and younger siblings.
They were stripped of everything they had — clothes, hair and, soon, their names.
“My number was 71366. I didn’t have a name, just my number.”
Learning to survive
When Gross first saw the barracks and witnessed how prisoners were living, “I can’t even tell you how lonely and helpless I was.”
He had been separated from his brothers. They went to one camp, while he was imprisoned in a camp 50 kilometers from Munich, Germany.
Life over the next year was a test in survival. For nearly a year, he shifted from one camp to another, hoping to avoid “Camp 7,” where those who were unable to work went and where no food was provided.
“I was determined to live,” said Gross. That took creative rationing and reasoning.
A small aluminum container held his daily ration of coffee and soup, and he kept this with him at all times. “If we were lucky, we would get a little piece of potato in the soup.”
A small loaf of bread about 10 inches long had to be split among eight prisoners, he said. Gross broke his into small crumbs that he would nibble on throughout the day, and one morning he asked a neighboring prisoner why he didn’t do the same.
The man replied: “How do I know I’ll be here for lunch?”
“Those kinds of people died first because they gave up hope. I made up my mind every day when I got up that no matter what life would give me, I wanted to be here for the next day. I never gave up,” Gross said.
One day, a father begged his son to swap slices, both arguing that they needed the larger piece more. To survive was to be selfish, Gross saw, even with family. He learned this first hand after his cousin, also imprisoned, refused to share even a sliver of skin of a whole potato he had.
The food was never enough to keep prisoners alive for very long.
“It was not unusual for me to get up in the morning to see that neither of my neighbors got up. They died through the night. There was a group of prisoners … their job was to go to all the barracks to take out the dead people and put them in small wagons. Most died of starvation.”
Gross needed to find another source of food.
He learned that some prisoners, who were former smokers, offered their bread for at least seven cigarette butts, so Gross scoured the train stations where he cleaned toilets.
“It took me two weeks to find seven butts, but I knew that I would live seven days longer.”
One night when his hunger was unbearable, he heard Allied Forces planes flying over the camp. “When that happened, all the lights go out in the camp,” he said. He snuck to the kitchen to get food. He avoided being seen by the guards, but on the way back, other prisoners attacked him, taking the potato he managed to steal and one of his shoes.
The next day, it snowed.
“I couldn’t walk,” said Gross, adding that a guard threatened to shoot him if he didn’t join the others and work that day.
So he jumped in the snow, careful to not let his toes freeze.
“Whatever life gave me, I just tried to deal with it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself. That’s how I did everything; that’s how I survived it,” said Gross, who was eventually able to negotiate with another prisoner to get a pair of shoes that fit.
‘No longer felt pain’
His daily work was grueling, hauling 50-pound bags of cement to trucks.
“When I put it on my shoulder, it felt like my bones would break, but the guards would yell ‘Mach schnell,’ meaning ‘Do it faster,’ Gross said.
If they didn’t move fast enough, the guards would beat them.
“It got to a point where my body didn’t feel the pain … You’d be surprised at what your body could take when you have to. It went on for eight hours like this every day.”
But the saddest moment for Gross didn’t come during the physical beatings, or at night when he was writhing in pain from the cold and hunger. It was the sight of a butterfly outside the barracks.
“I was watching it fly over the fence. Nobody stopped it. It had the freedom of the world. If I tried that, I would be shot … I thought about the world out there and that the world doesn’t know what’s happening to me.”
He felt the despair of others, too. One day, marching next to two other prisoners, a man questioned the existence of God.
“He said, ‘If I survive this, I’m not going to believe in God. I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Two days ago, I had a wife and 10-year-old son … Both are gone. How could God do something like that?’ A man to my left overheard this and said, ‘I never believed in God, but If survive, I’m going to believe in God.’ Everyone had a different way about thinking about God.”
That night, Gross dreamt he was in a room with God and God sneezed. “I didn’t know what to say to him,” said Gross, a thought that made him chuckle.
He would come back to that moment, over and over again, a humorous thought from a dream long ago that would make him and others laugh.
The day came when Gross was too weak to work. His weight had dropped from 145 pounds to 85 pounds. He was moved to Camp 7. He knew what that meant.
Gross, then 16, was forced onto another train, this time headed to Dachau. It was supposed to arrive a day earlier, on April 28, but Allied Forces bombings stalled the journey by a day.
When he stepped off the train, he was among thousands of inmates inching their way in the direction of Dachau. He remembers the struggle to stay on his feet, marching in the cold drizzle, his soaked clothes weighing on his frail body.
When the crematorium came into view, Gross said he felt relieved, “almost happy.”
“I knew in a half an hour it would be over. I wouldn’t be cold. I wouldn’t be hungry.”
As he began to accept his fate, the line suddenly stopped.
“A guard threw his weapon down, and it fell in the water and splashed me. I looked around and no one was moving.”
He looked up and saw an American Jeep, with four American soldiers at the gate. American troops had arrived to liberate the camp. It was April 29, 1945.
His next memory was waking up a sanitarium, where prisoners were sent to recover. There was a room dedicated for prayer services, and while inside that room one day praying, the door flew open. His older brother Abraham was standing there.
“I felt both happy and sad,” said Gross, noticing that his favorite brother David wasn’t beside him. He later learned that David died of starvation in the camp. Gross also lost his parents, two brothers and a sister, and several other relatives.
Unable to stay in Romania, where Jews were attacked, Gross settled in Philadelphia, where his aunts lived. He married and had three sons, but never discussed his Holocaust experiences with any of them.
Ending the silence
Gross’ first wife Bella, also a victim of the Holocaust, never spoke of her time in the Nazi death camps. When she died, he realized he lost a part of her that no one would ever know.
“I was going through my life at night, thinking of her, and I found the energy to speak.”
That first trip to the podium didn’t come easy.
“I was trying to tell my story, but I couldn’t do it,” said Gross, remembering people approaching him with napkins to wipe his nose and eyes. “I couldn’t continue like that. So when I got to the point I couldn’t speak, I threw in a joke, and sure enough it worked perfectly.”
He remembered God, and the dream he had in the barracks that night “when God sneezed … that always gets a laugh,” he said.
The more he joked, the more he laughed and the easier it became to share.
Over the last 10 years, he’s spoken dozens of times, and most times with a bag of props — a loaf of bread, seven cigarette butts and a potato.
He says the potato is symbolic, a reminder of what he learned at the camp and what he had to “unlearn,” the “selfish” survival skills.
His cousin, who had refused to share even a small slice of potato skin with him in the work camp, reached out to Gross years after their liberation. “He said, ‘If you don’t loan me $500, next week I’ll be homeless with two children and my wife.’ So, do I get even with him or help him?”
The Hebrew word, tzedakah, which encourages charity, came to mind.
He said he realized that only through acts of generosity and charity could he begin to “retrain” his brain to fight the selfish tendencies he learned at the camp.
When students hear his story, they ask questions like, “How can you believe in God? How do you forgive?”
He tells them: “If you don’t forgive, it means you’re angry. If you forgive, your body can relax and you keep on functioning.”
Spreading joy is another way to move forward. When he sees someone looking despondent, he pulls from his wallet a laminated light blue card that reads “keep smiling.”
“I know how it feels when you are not smiling — that’s how I grew up. I don’t want people to be ignored. When I show them the card, all of a sudden, their whole body and face changes. I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
Rising above hate
Still, in today’s world, there are images of hate that are hard to stomach, including the video of George Floyd dying beneath the knee of a white police officer.
“I had to close my eyes when I saw that.” In all his years, he said, “I cannot figure out how one person could hate another so badly.”
Even after sharing his story hundreds of times, it’s never easy to recount the horrors of the Holocaust. But he feels it’s his duty to teach others the power of hope and the healing power of forgiveness.
“We all come from the same source; it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you look like. People shouldn’t get angry because someone is different. We have to learn to get along … we have to learn to forgive.
“I believe in that throughout my life. And if you don’t lose hope, you could live longer and be happier. No matter what happens, tomorrow can be better. That is why I’m 91 and am still here.”