By Samantha League, Communications Coordinator
On March 8, the International Day of Women and Girls, OLP welcomed Holocaust survivor Rose Schindler to our Theatre to share her story with over 200 students.
This rare visit was coordinated by Mrs. Angela Gascho, who teaches Holocaust Literature, and Jenna Corbin from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “Hearing from survivors of the Holocaust is more critical than ever right now,” Mrs. Gascho says. “There are fewer and fewer survivors who are around to tell their stories to this next generation of young people, and awareness of the impact of hate on any society is one of the most important lessons needed in schools to help empower students to become social justice advocates in the world.”
According to Jenna and ADL research, Anti-semitism hate crimes are on the rise – in fact, we haven’t seen this number of hate crimes since 1933. “Giving students the opportunity to hear about the direct impacts of Anti-semitism helps them make direct connections so they feel empowered to be upstanders and not bystanders,” Mrs. Gascho stresses. “Being personal is what makes it real for students.”
And listening to Rose’s heartbreaking story did leave an impact on students in her class. Here are some quotes from student letters to Rose after her talk:
“I have always read about the Holocaust and have watched movies about it, but I have never been blessed enough to hear and meet an actual survivor. You are so strong and brave and are a true role model. You probably hear that a lot, but your story has really stuck with me. I shared it with my family at dinnertime and my Mom was in tears.” -Sydney Stepovich, Class of 2017
” I will always remember this and keep this near to my heart.” – Elizabeth Yokely, Class of 2017
“You have inspired me to stop being a bystander and to start speaking up about injustices I see in the world.” – Erin Stumm, Class of 2017
“The part of the story that touched me the most was when you still had hope even in the darkest moments in your life. You did not give up hope even when you had doubts. I became emotional when I heard what happened to your family because you were as young or even younger than myself and I could not imagine how devastating it could have been.” – Marissa Ramirez, Class of 2017
“I will make it my mission to be a voice for the voiceless and to dedicate my time and love of those in most need of it.” – Victoria Salcedo, Class of 2017
“You inspired me enough for me to start making an effort to make sure others don’t suffer the way you did.” – Alondra Ackerman, Class of 2017
“I was inspired by your courage to speak up about this horrible event in history that should never be forgotten.” – Katrin Alberto, Class of 2017
“When I heard your words, ‘Do not let anyone bully you’ and to defend all people who are, you encouraged me so much.” – Sophia Hanna, Class of 2017
Read on for a brief synopsis of Rose’s story:
Rose Schindler was born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine) in a small, rural town. About one-third of the population was Jewish, including her family of 10. Rose only received four years of education because by 1939, Jewish children were no longer allowed to go to school.
In 1944, Hungarian SS soldiers moved in to officially occupy the town. A month after Passover, Rose went to the bakery for her mother and heard the announcement that “all Jews were to be taken away.” Rose recalled feeling excited because she’d never been on vacation before – but her parents knew better. Her father hid their most cherished valuables, his pocketwatch and her mother’s necklace, in their home before the whole family boarded an ox-driven wagon to travel to the next town.
The Jewish families were kept in tents at a train station for several weeks. They finally boarded a cattle train to Poland (a 1-2 day journey) with no seats, restrooms or food. When they arrived, a Jewish man who was forced to work for the SS asked Rose how old she was. When she said “fourteen,” he told her to say she was 18. She did as she was told, and joined her two older sisters in one line. Her father and eldest brother were put in another line, and her mother and youngest siblings were put in a third line. Her mother and youngest siblings – too young and weak to perform slave labor – went straight to the gas chambers.
“We had no idea what we were doing… We were like sheep going to slaughter,” Rose recalled.
By 1944, Hitler’s lethal gas supplies were running low. Whoever wasn’t murdered by gas in the chambers was burned immediately after.
“You could almost see shadows in the smoke,” Rose said.
Rose’s clothes were taken away and her entire body was shaved to prevent lice. Her and her two sisters received black coffee for breakfast, bread and margarine for lunch, and soup with “potatoes, cabbage, rice and dirt” for dinner. There were no cups or bowls – everyone drank and sipped from a giant pot.
Meanwhile, Rose’s father and brother were at the men’s camp next door. Rose was lucky enough to see her father one last time, speaking to him through the fence. Her father said, “Whatever you do, stay alive so you can tell the world what they’re doing to us.” Rose later found out that her father got sick and was killed in a camp, while her brother and 200 other young men were brought to a forest to dig a mass grave that they would later be buried in.
Rose and her two sisters – the last of her family – remained in what was meant to be a transitional camp for over three months. There were over 1,000 women living in each barrack, which made it easy to escape selections for the next slave-labor camp or gas chambers. Rose and her sisters had a feeling the war would end soon, so they tried to wait for liberation.
But when the camp’s population started to get smaller, Rose and her sisters knew it was time to leave. By this time, Rose was skin and bones and knew she wouldn’t be selected to survive. She asked her sisters to go first and save a spot for her in line. Rose stayed behind in the building, and miraculously saw one woman leave out a back door that was supposed to be locked. Rose followed her, and when questioned, said she was the woman’s daughter. This was a good enough answer for the guard, and Rose ran around the building to the line with her sisters.
The three girls ended up a factory in Germany. Rose was assigned to work on masks, which required her to bend up and down continuously throughout the day. She worked up the nerve to ask for an extra meal due to her job’s physical requirements, and brought the meal back to her sisters to share.
On May 8, everything changed: no one came to escort the prisoners to work. The prisoners stayed in their barracks for 3-4 days, terrified to leave. Finally, Rose went out to see the gates wide open – all the SS soldiers had fled. She ventured out, hearing Russian voices. She immediately grabbed their attention and brought them into the camp to be liberated.
“When the Russian men said, ‘we could go, we’re free’ – I felt reborn,” Rose said.