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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Teacher, survivor want Holocaust to remain on students' minds

They stayed after school to hear.
It was that important.
Teacher Patrick Nolan has been studying the Holocaust for more than 25 years and now he is passing on what he has learned. He has helped implement a college-level history elective class on the subject — this one at Sandalwood High School — a goal, he says, that has been his life’s ambition.
“It is more important now than ever for students to listen to and learn from this shrinking population of World War II survivors,” Nolan says.
Textbooks educate the students about the Holocaust, how the Nazis captured and killed 6 million Jews and millions of other people in targeted religious, ethnic and other groups, including people with disabilities, homosexuals and political opponents during the Third Reich from 1933 and 1945.
But students don’t only learn from textbooks and films. During class, they have heard first-hand from Holocaust survivors such as philanthropist Henri Landwirth and retired surgical nurse Helena Zuber, both of Ponte Vedra Beach. Landwirth and his family were separated and became prisoners in the Nazi death and labor camps during World War II; he spent five years as a teenager at Auschwitz and Matthausen concentration camps. Zuber, who is Catholic, joined the underground resistance at age 16 and was subsequently imprisoned in Oberlangen concentration camp, among others.
While school was still in session, a large audience of students and teachers opted to stay after school to hear Zuber. Nolan had invited her to speak to his classes in the past, but he wanted to open this particular event to “the entire student body because I do not know how long there will be Holocaust survivors who are able and willing to speak to our students.”
Several students from the Holocaust class started by relating their experience visiting concentration camps, including Auschwitz I, during a trip to Europe with Nolan.
Scott Lowery narrated a video he and his friends recorded during the trip. It dovetailed with the experiences Zuber shared during the gathering.
“It’s really life-changing because what you read in the book and watch on the videos can’t compare to a first account,” student Ryan Federiso said.
She did what was right and stuck to her belief system, he added.
As Nolan escorted Zuber onto the stage, the Sandalwood auditorium erupted in applause that became a standing ovation.
Zuber wants to share her story to make certain that people hear about the Holocaust “because it could happen again if people cannot find a way to live in harmony together.”
Zuber grew up as part of a close-knit family in pre-war Vienna, a “very cultural” city with a symphony, ballet, museums and a university.
Her father was a professor at the Academy of Science, but when Hitler took control of Austria in 1938, the wonderful life Zuber knew came to an end.
The Nazis closed the universities and many professors were sent to concentration camps because Hitler saw their influence with the younger generation as a threat.
In school, “You had to say ‘Heil Hitler.’ It was an atmosphere of fear,” Zuber has told students.
To fight the regime, the 16-year-old Zuber joined the underground resistance movement, whose members met in secret in restaurants and parks.
Her job was to watch a group of Jewish children until there was a window of opportunity for resistance members such as the nuns she worked with to help the children escape. Parents just turned over their children to these nuns with the hopes that they would be able to smuggle them out of the country. Zuber said she was reunited with one of her favorite children from those days; he is 77 and living in Australia.
She also observed and reported troop movements. Underground members had pre-arranged signals to alert each other to danger, but Zuber nevertheless was picked up by the Gestapo three times for interrogation.
The first time she “played dumb” and was let go. The second time she was arrested and questioned for several hours. The third time, she was shipped to Germany to the first of three concentration camps.
Everyone in the resistance was given a ring that had a small case inside, Zuber said. The cases contained a cyanide pill to take if they were ever caught. Being Catholic, she never considered taking the pill because suicide is a cardinal sin.
Zuber has said many of her experiences in the camps continue to impact her emotionally today. Because she was always hungry, she sometimes tears up at the sight of loaves of bread in the grocery store. Because she was always dirty, she buys lots of soap.
“I know that Helena has made it her personal mission to continue to tell her story because she knows that there are people in the world, despite mountains of evidence, who deny that the Holocaust ever happened,” Nolan said. “She also knows that knowledge and education are the best antidotes to racism, prejudice and injustice.”
While in the camp, Zuber said, she was told her parents had been killed in the war. Her parents were told the same thing about her. They reunited long after the war ended.
Zuber and the rest of the camp inmates were liberated by the First Canadian Army and a division of British soldiers in 1945. She eventually married Karol Zuber, one of the Canadian Army liberators, and went on to study nursing at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and Johns Hopkins University, a lifelong dream.
Zuber’s message to students: Fight for what you believe in and take advantage of the educational opportunities in front of you.
She told students that they should be taking in as much as they can at every opportunity.
“Everything in life is a learning experience,” Zuber stressed.
Sandalwood teacher Constance Voigt said that “it was amazing that [Zuber] has such a fantastic outlook on life and that she tells her story as if you can visualize being there.”
After speaking, Zuber welcomed anyone who wanted to speak to her to form a line on the stage.
She took time to shake the hand of every student and adult, listened to what they had to say and said goodbye by adding, “God bless you.”
Even as the auditorium was filling up for the next event, Zuber remained to talk to the students who’d waited patiently to say how much they admired her.
To this, Zuber would say, “I’m no hero, I’m no one special.”
Several students would then reply, “Oh, but you are.”
Maggie FitzRoy contributed to this report.

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