Students in Loudoun County seek answers from survivors

Holocaust survivor Jacques Wagschal talks with students at Dominion High School in Sterling. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

Were you aware of what was happening? What gave you hope? How can one man command so many people to do such terrible things? How do you feel about Holocaust deniers?

Those were questions an international group of students asked local Holocaust survivors at the Loudoun County Public Schools International Summit on April 11. Held at Dominion High School in Sterling, the event brought together local students and others from 20 countries.

The survivors, including Jacques Wagschal and Klara Sever, among others, each told their life story to a group of students, many of whom were coming face-to-face with history as someone’s lived experience — not something they had read in a textbook.

Hearing Sever’s story led Nabeel Jeewa, 15, of South Africa, to sign up for the Adopt a Survivor program, a commitment to share a survivor’s story in their schools at home.

Sever was born in Slovakia and taken as a child to a concentration camp with her family before being able to wait out the war in hiding. Nabeel had studied the Holocaust in school, but it’s “just a totally different perspective” to hear it from someone who experienced it.

“I thought it was really interesting to hear her story because if you didn’t come to events like this, you wouldn’t know,” he said. It would be easy to forget the people it affected, he added, if you didn’t hear from them.

Alexandro Bojan, 16, of Romania, agreed. He was in the group talking with Wagschal, who was among several hundred Jewish children moved around by a group of women to avoid German capture. Alexandro had never heard a Holocaust survivor speak before and said it was different than reading a textbook. This was “up in my face and personal.”

“I was really impressed by his story,” said Alexandro, who later crouched next to Wagschal, who sat in a wheelchair, to talk further.

One thing Wagschal said particularly resonated with him: “We forgive, but we don’t forget.”

A student in Sever’s group asked her how aware was she of what was happening. Sever told the students she “remembers everything.”

A student in Wagschal’s group was the one to ask about Holocaust deniers. Wagschal had strong words for those who denied or minimized what happened — the Holocaust denier is “crazy” and “a stupid idiot” — but also an admonition for the students to remember and think for themselves.

“Life is too short, make your own lives,” he said. “I’m getting on in years and I’m a sick man. Someone has to carry on my story. If people know the truth instead of lies, they will do the right thing.”

The students had some straightforward questions about each survivor’s life: Did you go to school with non-Jews? What was it like to come to a new country where you didn’t speak the language? Other questions tried for context or even a reason.

While several students asked versions of “How could it have happened?” Alexandro, leaning forward in his seat, got straight to the point: How can one man command so many people to do such terrible things? he asked Wagschal.

Wagschal answered with a question of his own. “I always ask, ‘What did we do to deserve such hate?’” The answer: nothing. He pointed, instead, to fear and economic uncertainty. The Germans were facing high unemployment, there was a recession and they wanted someone to blame. Hitler offered them a Jewish scapegoat.

Nearby, a young woman asked Sever what gave her hope during such a difficult ordeal.

“I want you to remember one thing,” Sever said. “Genocide is a very, very terrible thing. These kind of situations bring out the worst in people, but sometimes the best in people.”

She and her family would not have survived without moments of kindness, sacrifice and courage from others, Sever added. That gave her hope and she had a favor to ask of the students.

“Light the candle not for me,” she said, referring to small electric candles given to the students. “Light a candle for the people that in the face of this horror, and knowing they were going to die if they didn’t denounce us, didn’t denounce us.

“It just takes one person to change the world,” she said. “It really does. Remember that for me. Light the candle for them.”

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