"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)
Michael Herskovitz visits Haverford High School on May 3
This news article is verbatim from the Delaware County News Network. The link is no longer available.
Holocaust Survivor Bears Witness to Atrocities
By Lois Puglionesi
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
HAVERFORD TWP - Haverford High School English instructor Jen Ward has taught thousands of students about the Holocaust through books like Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” But Ward has always felt her classes have difficulty “making the connection between history and a real person.”
So this year Ward tried something different. With help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center she arranged for a Holocaust survivor, Michael Herskovitz, to visit the school last week.
A warm and affable man with a heavy European accent, Herskovitz, 81, described growing up in a small Czechoslovakian village where his religious Jewish parents owned a grocery store. Herskovitz said he never felt different because people treated each other with mutual respect.
But in 1943, when Herskovitz was 13, Nazi soldiers arrived and the happy life he’d known forever changed.
Herskovitz described how within weeks synagogues closed, his parents lost their store, Jews were put under curfew and forced to wear yellow Jewish stars.
Stating that it was for their own “protection,” Nazi soldiers transported Herskovitz, his parents and siblings to a ghetto where they were given a tent to live in and fed once or twice a day.
The situation grew even more ominous when soldiers took the family to a railroad station and put them on cattle cars crammed with 60-70 people. The train picked up many more passengers before reaching its final destination, Auschwitz.
Herskovitz described the chaos and panic as men and women were separated, and children taken from their mothers’ arms.
It was there that Herskovitz saw his father for the last time.
Among its horrors, the camp housed a gas chamber and crematorium where millions perished.
"They didn't have to have an excuse to kill you," Herskovitz said of Nazi guards. "They could take their black stick and beat you to death, shoot you to death, or let the dogs do their job."
Herskovitz had been at Auschwitz for one year when Russian troops began advancing on Poland in 1945. He was transferred to Mauthausen, a work camp in Austria, and then to Gunskirchen Extermination Camp, where "there was nothing but mud. You walked in mud over dead bodies."
Though he'd given up hope, Herskovitz said he woke up one morning in May to the sound of gunfire. Gunskirchen's gates were open and there were no Nazi guards.
Herskovitz said anyone who had the strength walked through the gates into outlying fields, eventually reaching a highway swarming with tanks and trucks. A well-meaning British soldier tossed hamburger onto the roadside, but Herskovitz hadn't eaten in so long that he passed out after the first swallow.
Herskovitz woke up in a hospital in Munich. He isn't sure whether weeks or months went by before his transfer to Budapest, where he was reunited with his uncle and two sisters. Herskovitz' parents and brother did not survive.
When the opportunity arose in 1948, Herskovitz traveled to Israel and volunteered for the Israeli Army. He fought in two wars before emigrating to the U.S. in 1959, settling in Philadelphia.
Herskovitz married, had children and became a successful businessman. But in 1994 Herskovitz said he realized that he needed "to let the world know what the Holocaust was."
Although 6 million Jews and 5 million members of other groups suffered its atrocities, "I realized schoolchildren didn't know about it. Even today we have a lot of deniers," Herskovitz said.
When asked how he survived, Herskovitz said he wanted to live so he could tell others what happened. Herskovitz has written two books about his experiences, Early One Saturday Morning and Our Cherry Tree Still Stands. And despite his past ordeal, Herskovitz said he doesn't hate anyone, and remains proud of being Jewish.
Also in attendance last week was president of the Holocaust Awareness Museum, Chuck Feldman, who urged students to remember Herskovitz' story.
"It will be your job to tell your family and friends, your children and grandchildren," said Feldman, noting that future generations will not have the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors.
Although people say "never again," genocide still happens, said Feldman, pointing to Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Darfur. "We have to be vigilant. We have to be aware."
Erika Knight, a junior, said, "It's really sad, all the stuff that happened, but it's important to hear about it. It doesn't sound human."
Contact Herskovitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site, www.earlyonesaturdaymorning-michaelherskovitz.com.
The Holocaust Awareness Museum conducts a Witness to History Project that connects adults and students with Holocaust survivors. For more information visit www.holocaustawarenessmuseum.org. Phone: (215) 464-4701.