"Hearing one person tell their story gave a completely different perspective to what happened, as it wasn't about statistics or about a nation as a whole, but one person who lost his family and home." ~O. Avery (student)

Reliving the Holocaust ... by Re-enacting it

This is the Philly.com article, verbatim. The link is no longer available.


The Philadelphia Daily News

April 24, 2009 Friday

By WILL BUNCH; bunchw@phillynews.com 215-854-2957

Reliving the Holocaust ... by re-enacting it

IT WAS October 1942, and Hans Salomon, a Jewish 20-year-old from the German city of Mannheim, had already survived a forced round-up by Nazi authorities and deportation in a darkened rail car to France, brutal months of forced labor and hiding from the Gestapo in a farmhouse attic.
Finally, with the worst horrors of the Holocaust looming for too many family and friends, Salomon and four young friends could literally see freedom from the frigid, snow-bound peaks bordering neutral Switzerland, but he felt that he couldn't take another step in the thin Alps air, in his painfully uncomfortable shoes.
"Leave me here," Salomon told his friends, as snow piled up. "Let me sleep."
His friends told Salomon that he would die of exposure if he stopped moving; they popped some chocolate in his mouth and convinced the young man to keep going. Hans Salomon became a survivor that day.
Some 67 years later, he still is. Now 86, a widower who lives in a senior-citizens high-rise in Northeast Philadelphia and breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank, Salomon still visits area schools, bringing his World War II story to life for children who weren't even born when the movie "Schindler's List" was released.
On Sunday, Salomon will tell his story to a larger-than-usual audience, at a special event arranged by the Philadelphia Holocaust Awareness Museum. Capping a week of worldwide Holocaust Remembrance events, Salomon will talk at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, 9768 Verree Road, at 7 p.m.
He will be joined by another survivor, Egon Gruenhut, and by the American expat who did more than anyone to rescue him from the labor camps of occupied France: Tracy Strong, a World War II relief worker now in his 90s.
The Northeast Philadelphia event is especially poignant because Salomon and Strong - who've traded cards and letters for years, and saw each other at a reunion in eastern France about seven years ago - know it may be their last reunion.
That brings into a sharp focus a problem that has worried Holocaust historians and awareness advocates. These hearty souls who once survived the worst that mankind had to offer cannot ultimately survive old age. Although there are an estimated 138,000 Holocaust survivors still living in the United States, their numbers shrink every day.
That worries people like Philadelphia's Chuck Feldman, who, when he's not running his comic book store on Castor Avenue, volunteers to promote the small Holocaust Awareness Museum located inside a Jewish community center in Somerton.
The museum, said to be the first of its kind in America, is using Sunday's reunion as the formal kickoff of a novel program it calls Witness to History, which will train teenagers and younger adults to become Holocaust re-enactors.
At schools and elsewhere, they will relate the horrors of Europe in the 1940s in the first-person voice of people like Hans Salomon, anticipating the day when the survivors can no longer do so themselves.
Although there have been extensive efforts to obtain oral histories - most famously Steven Spielberg's effort to film thousands of interviews with survivors - Feldman believes that this is the first program to use re-enactors.
"We need to have young people telling this story," Feldman said. Like many involved in raising Holocaust awareness, the Philadelphian is alarmed at increasing inaccurate revisionism or even outright denial about the deaths of six million Jews. "We need to be combating this," he said.
To that end, officials at the Holocaust museum began recruiting a group of volunteers - so far, a couple of adults and some students from high schools where the museum has held educational events - to meet with people like Salomon and Ronnie Breslow. She is a local woman who was a passenger on the MS St. Louis, a Jewish refugee ship from Germany turned away by the United States in 1939.
Sunday night, these younger trainees will briefly relate some of Salomon's survival story - before the audience meets the real Salomon and Strong, a Seattle native based in Geneva, Switzerland in the early '40s with the European Student Relief Fund. Strong used cash, occasional trickery and dogged persistence to get more than 75 young Jews like Salomon out of the camps.
Salomon recalls a normal childhood in Mannheim before Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933 - then being forced to quit school for factory work and, later, watching in 1938 as the Nazis torched the synagogue his family attended.
An older brother was able to emigrate to America, but Salomon and his parents were not so fortunate. On Oct. 22, 1940, the 18-year-old Salomon and his parents were told that they would be sent to camps in France, which had been overrun by Nazi troops that summer.
"We were put into cattle cars, and there was nothing to eat for three days," Salomon recalled.
The anxious journey took Salomon and his parents to a concentration camp in a French town called Gurs. The family was split when the teen was taken to Brest on France's westerm coast to build a Nazi U-boat station. His parents were eventually deported, and he later learned that they died before they reached the Auschwitz death camp.
The only glimmer of hope for Salomon was that he was in Vichy France, where, unlike most of Europe, relief workers like Strong had access to the camps.
Strong worked with the Vichy authorities to get Salomon and his friends into a student program in another French city, but even there, with the worst horrors of the Holocaust looming, the young Jews still did not feel safe. Salomon hid in a French farmer's attic, and then embarked with his friends on their trek across the Alps. But when they arrived, they were arrested and sent right back to a French labor camp, where Strong worked yet again to secure their freedom.
Salomon learned cabinetmaking in Switzerland, finally gained legal entry to America in 1946 and drifted down to Philadelphia, where he married a fellow Jewish refugee, worked in and eventually bought a Cornwells lumber store, and raised two boys.
As the years passed, telling others about what happened to him became increasingly important, and now he's glad to know that others will be taking over for him some day.
"There are some who say that the Holocaust never took place," he said. "But I'm a living witness . . . still."