PILOT MOUNTAIN — One group is on a mission to show teachers how to teach one of the darkest times in the history of mankind.
“There are some things in life you want to do, and some things you have to do,” explained Holocaust survivor Zev Harel. “This is one of those things you just have to do.”
Harel visited Pilot Mountain Middle School on Wednesday to tell his story as part of a workshop for teachers provided by the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust.
Audrey Krakovitz is the director of teacher workshops for the council and explained the important role the workshops can play.
“We teach teachers how to teach the Holocaust,” said Krakovitz. “There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to teach it.”
Krakovitz explained the council works with school districts to organize the workshops. The council does seven to nine workshops throughout the state every year. They include a Holocaust survivor’s personal story, a presentation from a scholar regarding the history of the events and direction from a veteran teacher in regards to best teaching practices.
Krakovitz said the council encourages schools to teach the Holocaust to sixth through 12th graders, as it’s a historical event which teaches lessons which should not be soon forgotten.
“Teaching the Holocaust is so important so we can prevent something like that from ever happening again,” noted Krakovitz.
Harel lives in Greensboro and lived for more than 40 years in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, where he once served as a professor at Cleveland State University. However, he remembers his days as a teen in a ghetto and at three concentration camps in Nazi-held Europe quite well.
Harel said his family settled in Transylvania, which was granted to Hungary after it pledged its allegiance to Nazi Germany. They lived a rural life, and Harel grew up working with his grandfather on the farm. Eventually, the family moved to town, but life really changed shortly thereafter.
At 14-years-old, in 1944, Harel said he was taken to a ghetto.
“It was a brick building about the size of this school,” explained Harel. “About 300 or 400 people lived there. Families got a little bit of space and lived right next to each other.”
While in the ghetto, Harel said he volunteered for as much work as he could, completing such tasks as constructing primitive latrines. He only spent three months in the ghetto, but it was there where he first witnessed the atrocities of Nazi Germany and its sympathizers.
“The Hungarian police didn’t want to bother with the older people,” recounted Harel. “They put them in a building.”
Harel said the Hungarian officials then set fire to the building, burning those inside alive. That is his last memory of his grandfather, the man he idolized as a child.
After the three months in the ghetto, Harel’s situation only got worse. Cattle cars showed up to move the inhabitants to Auschwitz.
“It was a beautiful night,” said Harel. “I remember the stars in the sky. I also remember the stench at Aushwitz.”
Not everybody he encountered was bad, however. There were some “righteous” people, even among Hitler’s SS guards.
At Auschwitz, men and women were separated, said Harel. People were also separated by age. Those 15-years-old and younger and 50 and over were ushered to buildings which looked like shower facilities. The remaining people were of use.
“An SS guard asked me how old I was,” said Harel. “I told him I was 14, and he told me to say I was 17. All of my paperwork after that says I was 17.”
According to Harel, about 3 million people saw their lives ended at Auschwitz, only a portion of the 11.5 million who died in the Holocaust. Harel, however, was sent to two other concentration camps — Mauthausen and Ebensee. On the march to one, Harel learned some tricks to surviving.
“They would do things like throw your hat, then shoot you when you went to get it,” recounted Harel. “I learned you didn’t want to be at the beginning or the end of a line or on the sides. You always wanted to be in the middle.”
Harel spent about a year at Ebensee, where he worked to construct tunnels. Everyday, he worked on a cup of cofee, some soup and a piece of bread, though he saw his nutrition supplemented by another “righteous” person. The person who owned a guest house he was taken to work would give him food.
Toward the end of the war SS guards were replaced by other guards who didn’t run as tight a ship. The gates to the camp were left opened, and Harel would wander out. One day he fell in a ditch. He woke up in a hospital after soldiers from the U.S. 3rd Cavalry had liberated the camp.
Harel said a nurse at the hospital told him he had been rescued by an African-American soldier. Though he tried, he could never locate that soldier to thank him.
Harel said it’s not easy to talk about his experience. He proudly wears a 3rd Cavalry hat given to him by the commander of the unit, and he humbly tells his story so that it may be passed on to future generations.
He said teachers play an important role in ensuring there aren’t future stories like his.
“Teachers have an important role in the lives of kids,” said Harel, who was among only four members of his family to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust. “We have to do what we can so none of that will ever re-occur.”
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.