Eighth-graders from had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on Thursday to hear about something that will hopefully never happen again.
Harry Schneider, 74, a Holocaust survivor who hid from Nazi soldiers in the woods of Poland for two years, appeared before every eighth-grader in the school as part of an informative presentation in which Schneider spoke about his family's experience during World War II.
In an unusual but moving twist, Schneider was joined by 20-year-old Moritz Kulenkampff, of Germany, who is visiting the United States to volunteer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh's Holocaust Center.
Schneider, who lives with his wife just east of Pittsburgh in Churchill Borough, spoke first.
Schneider was a young boy during World War II when Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany on a mission to eradicate the world's Jewish population. Schneider was born to Jewish parents in Lomazy, Poland, around the time of this genocide, or Holocaust, and his family joined many others by hiding in the woods of that country to avoid being sent to concentration camps where death awaited millions of their people.
While Schneider's memories of his time in the woods are hard for him to recall—he was 2-and-a-half years old when the Germans invaded Poland—his relatives, especially his 10-year-older cousin, who now lives in Israel, have filled him in on many of the details.
Schneider relayed some of those details, much of which were featured in the 2008 Oscar-nominated movie Defiance, to Thursday's crowd of students.
"We were chased by the Germans from one end, and the Russians refused to let us cross into their territory at the other end," Schneider said. "We were chased and bombed by the Germans many times. In fact, my uncle's wife was killed in one of the raids."
Schneider spoke about how the Russians finally let his family come into their country after an agreement between Russia and Germany broke down.
Schneider's sister was then born in Russia, and a short while later, his father and uncle were taken into the Russian Army. The Russian government then put his mother, sister, cousin and him on a three-week train ride to the Ural Mountains near Siberia.
"The train was bombed several times by the Germans," Schneider said. "We had to get off and on in order to fix the rails."
The family moved in with a woman whose husband was in the Russian Army, as well.
"I remember there was very little food—and very cold (-35 degrees) in the winter," Schneider said. "Many times, I had to go out and find food, whether in someone's farm or in the woods. I was able to dig up some potatoes that farmers buried to keep them from freezing.
"After the war, we left Russia and returned to Poland. We did not know whether my father was alive or not."
His father and uncle eventually caught up with their family in a displaced persons camp in Poland.
"We did not want to stay in Poland any longer," Schneider said, "as we learned that our house was destroyed and the rest of the family was murdered."
The family spent its next four years in several displaced persons camps in Austria before U.S. President Harry S. Truman brought 100,000 displaced Jews to the United States.
"We were one of the fortunate," Schneider said. "I was the same age as you when I came to the United States. I was placed in eighth grade."
The Harrison students asked dozens of questions after Schneider's speech, ranging from how he learned English—"I didn't have a choice"—to why he talks about the Holocaust today.
"The story about the Holocaust has to be told," Schneider said, elaborating that not forgetting about tragedies like that help to prevent them from happening again.
Kulenkampff, a recent high school graduate from Berlin, spoke next. As is customary in Germany, young people take on military or other service duties between graduating from high school and enrolling in college.
Kulenkampff's service is with Germany's Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, an organization which, according to its website, "has been committed to working toward reconciliation and peace, as well as fighting racism, discrimination and social exclusion."
Kulenkampff asked the Harrison students what comes to mind when they think of Germany, and "Hitler" was among the first answers.
"It was 70 years ago," Kulenkampff said, "but Hitler is following Germany."
Kulenkampff said that the efforts of his organization are not only to accept responsibility as a nation for Germany's past but also to promote the country's international identity past World War II.
"The Germans, as a whole, are responsible for what happened in the Holocaust," he said.
Kulenkampff said that his own grandfather, though he didn't fight in World War II, was involved in the Hitler Youth Organization.
"They learned to hate Jews," Kulenkampff said. "They learned to hate minorities. They were brainwashed ... around 11 years old."
The younger Kulenkampff acknowledged that he feels guilt, as do many other Germans his age, just for being associated with the Holocaust as a countryman.
But the two speakers' cooperative appearance on Wednesday served as an inspiration to the students in attendance.
Some students asked Kulenkampff why Germans killed Jews during World War II. Kulenkampff responded that the Jews were scapegoats for the country's economic problems based on stereotypes left over from the Middle Ages—that the Jews controlled the world's money and that killing them would free that money back up.
"It's nonsense," Kulenkampff said, pointing out that German students nowadays are taught about the horrors of the Holocaust at least four times while they are in school and must visit the site of a World War II concentration camp.
"We don't think that way anymore," Kulenkampff said about "old Germany's" view of Jewish people. "It's just not true."
This marked the third straight year that Harrison's language arts teachers brought a Holocaust survivor into their school to speak in front of eighth-graders. The school makes a donation, through funds raised by Harrison's PTSA group, to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
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