For students at Old Bridge High School, their study of the Holocaust was given dramatic immediacy as two survivors recounted the horror and suffering they experienced.
Lithuanian native Sol Lurie, who survived six concentration camps and ghettos, and Edith Reich, a Berlin native who was interned at the Theresienstadt “camp-ghetto” near Prague, spoke March 22 to students enrolled in the school’s “Conscience of Man” course.
The course, which devotes one marking period to the study of the enslavement of Africans and another to the Holocaust, is taught by Evan Wigdortz.
The survivors’ appearance was arranged by Courtney DeMaio, an OBHS graduate who took the course. Now a Rutgers University social work student who is interning at Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County, she acknowledged that before she began working with survivors through JFS, she “didn’t know half the things” she has learned since from them.
JFS, with offices in Monroe Township and Milltown, serves more than 100 survivors through its Cafe Europa social and cultural group; its counseling, homecare, transportation, and emergency financial services; and its kosher meals-on-wheels, according to Faye Ross, JFS coordinator of Holocaust survivor services.
The two survivors, who live in Monroe’s adult communities, told their stories and answered numerous questions from the students.
Lurie, now 86, lived with his parents and three older brothers in Kovno, where his family had roots going back to 1492, the year his ancestors settled there after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.
He told graphic stories of demeaning and brutal encounters with Nazis.
One day, walking with his cousin, a German soldier standing nearby thought the cousin did not bow low enough to him. The soldier yelled, “‘dirty Jew,’” said Lurie, “and hit him with the butt of his rifle and killed him.”
In another instance, Lurie’s father, after hearing the Nazis were coming for children, hid the then 11-year-old, his cousin, and a seven-month-old baby in a hole dug in the floor of the barn and covered it with hay. His asthmatic cousin, struggling to breathe, came up for a few gasps of air just as the Germans entered.
While scrambling to escape, Lurie turned to see a German soldier throw the baby in the air and catch it on his bayonet.
“He was twirling it around and around, laughing,” said Lurie. “There was blood flying all over.”
He escaped by hiding in an outhouse. Knowing the Germans would look there, he jumped in the hole and hid in human waste for hours.
Lurie, who was liberated from Buchenwald on his 15th birthday, told the students he has learned to overcome hate and that he was saddened by the nasty rhetoric in today’s world and the loss of innocent lives as the result of ethnic or religious persecution.
“If I hated all Germans, I would be just like them,” Lurie told the students. “If I did, that would make me as bad as they were.”
“Remember: We are all God’s children and we should respect one another,” he said. “I don’t care what nationality you are, if you are a good human being, you are my friend.”
Lurie, who described himself as “the proudest American you’d ever want to meet,” had family in the United States and came to New York after the war, living first in Brooklyn. He has three children. Although his father and brothers survived Dachau — his mother died two days before liberation — he didn’t see his father — trapped behind the Iron Curtain — again until 1969.
Reich, 90, who was speaking to students about her history for the first time, said that after Kristallnacht in 1938, Jewish children were kicked out of German schools and Jews were stripped of their citizenship.
Her family sent her to a boarding school to study agriculture in preparation for life on a kibbutz in pre-state Israel. As the war dragged on, that became impossible.
At the time, Denmark was still free and was willing to sponsor Jewish children, so her family sent her there, with the expectation that she would soon be able to travel to Israel. Just two months later Denmark came under Nazi occupation.
“I worked on a farm and lived with a foster family,” said Reich. “They were wonderful people and I am still in contact with the family. In fact, my grandson went to Denmark last year and stayed with the family.”
Some 5,500 of the 6,000 Jews in Demark were spirited to Sweden by the Danish Underground ahead of a German round-up, but in 1943, Reich said, she was “one of the 500 who got caught.” She spent the next 18 months in the harsh conditions of Theresienstadt.
Following liberation, Reich, then 19, returned to Denmark for three years. She learned her family had survived by hiding in a neighbor’s root cellar. She joined them in New York and then lived in Edison.
“When people ask where I’m from, I say Denmark,” said Reich, who has two sons. “But I am 101 percent American. If there’s one thing I’m proud about, it’s being an American.”
Junior Camryn Weaver said after hearing the survivors’ stories, she felt like going home and crying.
“It was really emotional to listen to, but at the same time I got a lot out of it,” she said. “It made me realize you should try to be nice to people as much as possible and try not to be mean even if you don’t like the person.”
Senior Maxwell Abbeyquaye found it “inspiring because after all they went through they still want to help people.”
Frank Limaldi, also a senior, found it “humbling” to hear about the largest genocide in human history from those who lived through it.