NCHS students visit with Holocaust survivor during video conference
from The Natchitoches Times
By Leigh Guidry
About 20 Natchitoches Central High School sophomores experienced a piece of living history Tuesday during a live video conference with Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein. Sophomore Tyler Turner even spoke to her directly.
NCHS teacher Lesa Thompson’s 10th grade gifted English II class was one of 30 classes across the country that shared a live video conference with 86-year-old Klein Tuesday.
Ten students from the 30 schools were chosen to ask Klein a question during the video conference. Each student in the 30 classes submitted questions to ask Klein and sent them to the Klein Foundation, which selected only 10.
Turner was the only Louisiana student whose question was chosen. He asked Klein if she celebrated the day of her liberation, and if so, how.
Turner was little nervous to talk to her, especially now that he knew all that she had been through from studying her in class. He chose his question because he thought she might do something to mark such special and important event as her liberation. Turner was humbled and surprised that his question was chosen.
“I didn’t think my question would be that great,” he said. “I’m kinda happy but it might have gotten picked over a better one.”
Klein said she celebrated her liberation each year with her late husband. She said you must celebrate with someone. She urged students to celebrate each day that they can help others and that they’re free.
“Above all, be joyful and share it,” she said.
The conference follows the class’s in-depth, six-month study of the Holocaust. It was the topic of the class’ poetry, novel and non-fiction sections. Thompson is having a hard time moving the students into something new.
“I can’t get them off [the Holocaust],” she said excitedly. “I’m trying to move into Julius Caesar, but they keep coming back to this.”
Thompson’s students each chose a book about the Holocaust to read on their own. The class had a celebratory dinner with their parents and Thompson last week to end the section on the Holocaust. They also presented creative projects, which are on display at the Natchitoches Parish Library.
Thompson’s students were excited to have a live video conference with Klein.
“I’m pumped. I’ve always been interested [in the Holocaust], but actually getting to meet somebody who lived through it is just crazy to me,” sophomore Joseph McClung said.
The study of the Holocaust taught McClung to accept people – “to care for and understand people rather than just throw peoples’ lives away.”
Classmate Quincie McConathy learned something similar – to love each person as an individual and see them as people with stories to tell. That teaching is exactly what Klein stressed to students during her video conference.
She emphasized Tolerance Day, which was Tuesday. “What happened to me and so many others was because of a lack of tolerance,” she said. She also asked students to be heirs to her story and to always retell it, so stories like hers will never be rewritten.
“You are messengers to a time I won’t see,” she said.
Klein began her story when was 15 and taken to a “slave camp” Sept. 3, 1939. She wouldn’t speak of the horrors she went through. She wanted to focus on the side of the Holocaust story that isn’t often told – the side that shows the goodness of humanity, which she learned from several people including Ilsa.
Klein’s parents always wanted her to play with Ilsa, a neighbor girl, and to learn to play the piano like her. Klein was often compared to Ilsa and usually didn’t want to spend time with her. The two later became as close as sisters with Ilsa as her only family in the slave camp. Klein’s parents were killed and she never learned what happened to her 5-year-old brother.
Six years later, Klein and Ilsa began the “death march” to a murder camp with nearly 4,000 young girls Jan. 29, 1945. They marched for three months, eating every two or three days and even trying to eat frozen leaves they found along the way.
“It was very tough, to put it mildly,” Klein said.
Ilsa fell ill and was dying in Klein’s arms April 29, 1945 when she revealed a gift she had saved for Klein – a small dirty raspberry she had found on the ground and wrapped in a leaf. Ilsa showed her love and friendship in that one gift.
Klein said her friend also gave her life that day. Ilsa made Klein promise that she would try to live through the march one more week. Exactly one week later, Klein and the other girls were liberated by American forces. Only about 120 girls remained of the 4,000.
As the girls were walking that day, American planes flew overhead shooting at German soldiers, who herded the girls into a vacant bicycle factory. After the fighting was over, Klein opened the door to see a car coming toward her with a white star on it, marking it as American. A U.S. soldier approached her. All she could think to say was, “I’m Jewish.” He responded emotionally, “So am I.”
He asked her to come with him out of the abandoned factory. He held the door open and let her walk out first, which surprised her after years of being treated like she was nothing.
“That gesture restored me to humanity,” she said.
Klein was liberated the day before her 21st birthday, gray-haired and weighing 68 pounds. She spent a long time in the hospital. Klein married that American soldier a year later in Paris and made her home with him in Buffalo, N.Y. not long after.
“Don’t ever lose your dreams,” she said. “Almost everything is possible if you try and if you dream.”
If your dream doesn’t work out like you want, it is probably for a good reason, she said. Some of the last words her mother told her were not to ask God for what she wanted but to ask God to give her what was right for her.
She also urged students to reach out and help others, even after going through something as terrible as the Holocaust. She said you never get over it. The pain becomes like a stone in you. When the spark of injustice strikes, it warms you and you reach out and help.
“Pain must never be wasted,” she said. “Pain can be used to heal.”
The video conference was broadcast from Arizona State University and was made possible by the Klein Foundation, the NSU Writing Project, Holocaust Educators Network, a STEM grant and Virginia Lloid at Natchitoches Magnet School.
|Natchitoches Central High School teacher Lesa Thompson’s tenth grade gifted English class was one of 30 classes across the country that shared a live video conference with holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, 86, Tuesday.|