Friday, 12 April 2013

Holoca$h survivor and the mayor of the town he escaped address students

BRIDGEPORT -- At the age of 79, Harry Weichsel's memory isn't what it used to be, but two dates are just unforgettable. On July 24, 1942, his uncle was murdered in a concentration camp in Poland. Two months later, on Sept. 29, 1942, his grandparents were killed in a gas chamber in the Treblinka death camp in his native Germany. "Those dates remain indelibly etched in my memory," the Bridgeport resident told a group of more than 100 Central High School students Thursday during a Holocaust Remembrance ceremony at the school. Weischel was joined at the school by the mayor of the German town he escaped from as a child.

 A Realtor, Weischel was born in Wetter, Germany, in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power. He was just 5 years old on Nov. 9-10, 1938, or Kristallnacht, a night defined by the sound of broken glass that marked the Nazi destruction of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues and the brutal attack against Jews. Weichsel survived unscathed, wrapped in a quilt by his grandparents and hidden under a bed. "You've probably read the story of Anne Frank," he said. "Well my stories are not that different from hers except I didn't end up in the gas chamber or a concentration camp." After placing Weichsel in an orphanage when she went into hiding, his mother managed to get them both onto a boat headed for the U.S. in 1941. Asked by a student if it was an easy transition, Weichsel replied, "It was a hopeless and it was a frightening life until I landed on these beautiful shores in America." "My first vision of America was a fruit stand when we first came off the boat," he added, noting that the colorful fruit was a welcome sight after eating mostly potatoes for so long. The students also heard from Kai-Uwe Spanka, mayor of Wetter, Germany. Spanka, who has been in the city all week, showed the students a video tour of the synagogue and cemetery defiled by Nazis during the Holocaust. The synagogue was restored in 2005 and is now used as a community center and museum. Hanging on one of its walls is a proclamation issued in 2008 by Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who attended Thursday's assembly. Weichsel's longtime friend, Finch issued the proclamation for the small town's decision to restore the space and help the town move past its violent history. Even now, Spanka said, facing the past is difficult. He noted it was difficult for him to address the congregation at Rodeph Shalom, a synanogue on Park Avenue, on Sunday because many Holocaust survivors still harbor anger at Germany. Flanked by Spanka, Weichsel and Central Principal Stephen Anderson, Finch lit white candles and told the students to keep the "light of knowledge lit." He reminded them numerous times that each new generation is responsible for ensuring the mistakes of the past are not repeated. The high schoolers also saw a video produced by the National Holocaust Memorial Museum titled "Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs." They sat still and wide-eyed during the story of how the entire world watched as the Nazis forced Jews to sell their businesses, closed Jewish schools, created laws to control them, herded them like animals into concentration camps and, ultimately, tortured and killed millions. "In your lifetime we've had horrible genocides on the continent of Africa, in Darfur and Sudan," Finch said. "Genocide touches each one of us here in Bridgeport whether we like it or not." Finch told them. One of the students at the assembly, Jose Lopez, a junior at the school, said he has a family member who lived in Germany in the 1930s. Her brother was taken by force to serve as a soldier during the Holocaust. She never heard from him again. Freshman Ishrat Saboor called the ceremony "sentimental" and said it drove home recent efforts by school officials to focus on safety and gun-control issues. "I think it's actually really awesome we got to learn the history," the 14-year-old said.


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