HSSD Students Hear from Holocaust Survivor

HSSD Students Hear from Holocaust Survivor
Posted on 11/16/2018
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27 HSSD high school GT students joined more than 200 across Arkansas in attending “Near Normal Man: A Conversation with a Holocaust Survivor,” at the Clinton Center in Little Rock. Students viewed a 30-minute documentary film, “Near Normal Man,” which is based on the life of Ben Stern. In a rare opportunity, they then also got to hear from Mr. Stern about his lifelong commitment to retelling the story of the Holocaust in the hopes of stopping social injustice for future generations. Learn more about the event, here.

Ben is a Polish Jew, born in 1921.  After attending the Piaseczno Yeshiva in Warsaw (Jewish High School) for a year, he began to work, helping out the family in the general store owned by his grandmother in Mogielnice. He was 19 years old on September 8th, 1939 when the Nazis invaded Mogielnice, Poland and his world began to fall apart. He would go on to survive 2 two ghettos, nine concentration camps and two death marches.
Liberated by the American Army on May 8, 1945 in Lebanau by Lauffen, near the Austrian border, Ben was 24 years old and weighed 78 pounds at liberation. Ben soon met his future wife, Helen Kielmanowicz in Bergen-Belson, a displaced persons camp. Married two months later, they left Europe and arrived in America on May 15, 1946, on the “Marine Flasher,” the first ship carrying displaced persons from Europe. In the years that followed, Ben built a full life with Helen, and they raised three children, managed a successful business and were active in their community. In 1959, they moved to Skokie, Illinois. He and Helen now live in Berkeley, California. They have three grown children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

HSSD GT Coordinator Ms. Laura West works hard to choose events throughout the year that create more well-rounded and mindful students through interaction with leaders, heroes, storytellers, theatre, panel sessions, and more. With each special trip, she ties experiences for students back to current events through discussion and group activities. During a wrap-up session following field trips, she reminds students that these trips are an extension of learning. “After experiencing moments like hearing Ben Stern’s story, you shouldn’t be the same person as the one you left as this morning. We expect something more from you now. These experiences are chosen for you to make you a stronger, smarter, more well-rounded person that makes a difference in the lives of others,” she tells students.

Ms. West pointed out that “Near Normal Man” was not only memorable because he brought to life the horrors of the Holocaust, but also because his tales included those of persecution in the U.S. He encouraged students to identify and stop bullying and separation as soon as it starts, because being neutral only adds to the problem.  He repeated multiple times that the problem began by a simple separation between groups of people, and it ended with outright persecution in its worst form. She also says that students were so impressed by his message about forgiveness. Mr. Stern was serious with students about the need to fight against separation and bullying, and to also have forgiveness in our own hearts if they have been persecuted. He spent time pointing out how happy his personal life has been because he was able to not stay angry. He reminded all of them that the bullies and persecutors win when we spend our entire lives in hatred and anger. “Not Here. Now Now” was his challenge to students as they concluded the event. The challenge was part of a group activity at the Clinton Center where students were presented with prompts to discuss in groups things that they could do to stop bullying and separation in their schools and personal lives.

Student attendee Rachel Snider says: “His story brought tears to my eyes. I knew the Holocaust was terrible but hearing a real-life story is different, you get to hear it personally. Something that really got to me was when a student asked if he remembered any happy memories from his time in Poland. He started to tell a story but then it ended up sad. His daughter who was with him said “no dad a happy story” with him responding “oh.. I don't think I can.”

“Overall I am so happy I got to have this experience. It truly was life changing, I wish the whole school could have met him and heard his story.  I realized I live somewhere safe, yes, but not exactly. It wasn't always safe for many races of people ...He taught me I should take nothing for granted and stay close with my family,” said Rachael.

Another student attendee, Ella Pace, said: “I think that it’s vital for students to have the opportunity to hear from speakers like Ben Stern. One of the main ideas within the presentation was that our world’s young people need to learn from mistakes and tragedies in the past in an effort to prevent them from reoccurring.”

Concluding, Ms.West points out how rare these personal opportunities are becoming for young people, “We have fewer and fewer people around that can retell these lessons from the past from a personal perspective. It’s the job of every single one of us to learn from the past and to do our best to prevent tragedies like the Holocaust, and other examples of civil separation, social injustice, and such outright persecution from ever occurring again.”

Readers can meet Ben Stern in a video, here.  Learn more about the film “Near Normal Man,” here.

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