Almost 900 miles away from their home in Risco, Mo., five rising high school freshmen performed a short play based on the story of 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Elly Gross.
The performance served as the group’s entry in the national round of the annual National History Day competition. Based in College Park, the international program acts as the equivalent of a science fair for history projects.
Some students dressed in Nazi uniform and others in warm coats with yellow Jewish stars pinned at the breast. With Gross in the audience, the students reenacted periods of her survival story.
The play, performed Monday, featured scenes of a young Gross being pulled from a cattle car and separated from her family, as well as moments of survival in the Auschwitz concentration camp — what Gross credits as “miracles”— and her subsequent liberation.
The group of five met Gross last summer during a visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, where she was signing copies of her books chronicling her story.
Gross, who now resides in New York, lived in Romania with her family until she was 15 and was transported to Auschwitz. As portrayed in the group’s performance, Gross was separated from her mother and brother after arriving at the camp via cattle car and never saw them again.
After her liberation in 1945 she returned to Romania and married, moving to the United States with her husband and two children in 1966.
Before meeting Gross and learning more about her story and the stories of others impacted by the Holocaust, the students said they had limited knowledge of the events that left permanent scars on the Jewish community.
“It was really shocking not knowing a whole lot about the Holocaust and then meeting a member who survived it,” Garrett Young, 14, said. “Then learning about how children died and people were put in gas chambers, it was just really shocking and horrifying that all of this happened.”
Juggling athletics and additional schoolwork, the group of five practiced their performance for about two hours, three days a week since January. Many of their parents helped the students take advantage of the project’s unique learning experience.
“My point [with] this was to have the kids feel the performance, to put themselves into what she actually went through,” Beth Bixler said. “[Gross] was 15 when she was separated from her parents. How would you feel? I wanted them to feel the performance, not just act it.”
Through their experience putting their project together, the group discussed how they developed a more personal connection to the events that happened more than 70 years ago.
“[This project] has changed my whole perspective on the Holocaust,” Nathan Burnett, 14, said. “I just thought it was a bunch of adults being killed, but it was kids, too.
“It really relates to our age,” Young said. “Us being 13 and 14, this was the age Elly was taken into the Holocaust, and it just really impacted me.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to survive that,” said Mackenzie Meyers, 13, who portrayed Gross in the play.
Gross said she was flattered that the students chose to focus their research project on her life. She emphasized the sentiment of “never forget,” as history has a tendency to repeat itself.
“Don’t forget the past, because it’s very important,” Gross said. “Especially today and all around the world we are misunderstanding and fighting. It’s very important, more important than ever.”