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It's Your Story

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*As a Blue Star Museum, we additionally offer free admission to up to 5 immediate family members (spouse or children) of active military personnel from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  

Early One Saturday Morning

 

History is important to me, especially about the Holocaust, because it is a major part of Jewish history and I am Jewish. The Holocaust took place during World War II and involved the murders of 6 million Jews and millions of others by the Nazis. It occurred so recently and was so enormous, and yet I feel everyone needs to know more about it. So when I heard about the Witness to History Holocaust Awareness Project, I knew it was what I wanted to do. This project involves learning about the Holocaust from a survivor and then retelling the story to others as I am going to do right now. I interviewed an inspiring man named Michael Herskovitz. He was born in Czechoslovakia on February 5th 1929. He lived with his parents, two sisters, and two brothers in a small village. There were only 2 Jewish homes in his village: his family’s and his Uncle’s. His parents owned the only grocery store in town. Before going to school every morning, he walked 1 and ½ miles to the synagogue in the next town for morning prayers. Later, after his regular school, he would walk back to the synagogue for 3-4 hours of Hebrew school every evening. And I thought I had a lot of Hebrew school! Mr. Herskovitz told us that things in his village started to change when he was 13 years old. His family first learned about the war from a man who announced the news in the center of town. He said the village had been taken over by the German Nazi soldiers. One of the first things Michael’s family noticed was that the Nazis started taking things from the family’s store without paying. One day, his father asked them to pay for their groceries. The soldiers dragged his father outside by his beard and beat him up. After that, his family closed the store forever. Other changes also happened. All Jewish children were expelled from school. The only reason they were given was that they were Jewish. Then the Nazis locked the door to the synagogue. All Jews had to wear a yellow star on the outside of their clothes. There was a curfew and Jews were not allowed to be in the street in the evenings. Michael’s neighbors stopped speaking to them. Michael’s family was terrified because they did not understand what was going on. A few weeks later, in the middle of the night, Nazi soldiers with rifles knocked on the door. They lied and told them that they were going to take them to a safe place. They could bring as many clothes as they could wear and about 32 pounds of personal things which they stuffed into pillow cases. But they were not taken to a safe place. Instead, they were taken to a field 8 miles away where they were forced to live in tents. Each day, they stood in line for food and did nothing all day. Michael noticed that families started disappearing. He still thought that his family would eventually return home. Next, his family was crammed into freight trains and travelled over a few days to a concentration camp in Poland called Auschwitz. At Auschwitz, families were torn apart. Nazis forced people to go through separate gates depending on whether they were young, old, men, women, or children of a certain height. All they could hear were soldiers yelling, dogs barking, and people screaming and crying. The Nazis threw small children into trucks. Michael’s mother would not let go of his younger brother so the guards threw them both into the truck. Later he found out that they were taken to a crematorium and burned to death. Then the soldiers told everyone to take off all of their clothes and go into a building where they were shaved from head to toe. Afterwards, they were given prison uniforms and told they could exchange them with each other for the right size. While Michael was looking for clothes, he turned and his father was gone. He never saw his father again. He was 13 years old and without any family. Michael was in Auschwitz for 1 and ½ years. Every morning, when he heard the whistle, he had to run to get in his line. Line by line, the prisoners were ordered to rush to a building to get washed. Then they got the first of two tiny meals: a bit of soup, bread, and a little piece of cheese or butter. They stood in line again, and the soldiers removed people from the line who appeared weak, tired or sick, or simply had a look on their face the guards did not like. These people were sent to the crematorium and killed. There was also a doctor who removed people including twins from the lines and performed terrible medical experiments on them. Mr. Herskovitz told me about one day when he saw the most brutal thing he had ever seen. He was driven by guards to a farm where the prisoners had to push rocks up a hill in wheelbarrows. He heard one of the soldiers dare another, “Look at the Jew that’s not moving his wheelbarrow. You could aim and shoot him right between the eyes.” And so the other soldier shot him. Michael was transferred to 2 other concentration camps over the next 6 months. The last camp was the worst of all. The Nazi guards did not allow them to do anything. They were given only one small meal a day. The prisoners were completely covered with lice. There were no toilets, just holes in the ground. Those who were not strong enough to walk to the holes were killed. Dead bodies were all around them. One morning, when Michael was 16 years old, he remembered waking up to a series of gunshots. The gates were open and there weren’t any Nazi soldiers around. Nazi uniforms were scattered on the ground. Michael walked out of the camp with some other teenagers. They were finally free! They walked until they found a main street where there were tanks and trucks. One kind English soldier threw five-pound cans of raw hamburger meat from his truck. Michael remembered shoving fistfuls of meat into his mouth. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital in Munich, Germany. He had gotten typhus and weighed only 96 pounds. He almost died. After several months, he was finally able to walk, eat normally, and take care of himself. The hospital was able to locate his Uncle Zsiga and he and Michael went back to their village in Czechoslovakia. But when Michael got there, he found that the people had changed and did not want Jews living there. Michael decided to go to Israel and then to America where he and his family live now. Before I met Mr. Herskovitz I had learned about the Holocaust only in Hebrew School. After meeting him the Holocaust became real and extremely important to me. Although Mr. Herskovitz was calm, patient, and peaceful during the interview, his words described something very different. He told us about how the Nazis took joy in killing the Jews and in treating them so cruelly for no other reason than because they were Jewish. I learned many valuable things from Mr. Herskovitz. He told me: “never take your family for granted.” When I asked him to autograph one of his books and take a picture with my brother Danny, my sister Robyn, and me, he insisted on including my parent’s names in the signing and having all of us in the picture. From Mr. Herskovitz, I learned the importance of teaching others about how horrible the Holocaust was. Mr. Herskovitz teaches others himself by speaking at schools, colleges, and even the United States Congress. He is very passionate about the Witness to History Project. He does not want anyone to forget what happened so that the Holocaust never happens again. In America, Mr. Herskovitz was very successful. He has two children and many grandchildren. Despite all of the terrible things he experienced, he has a wonderful sense of humor. I remember a joke he told us. When someone asked him about his accent, he said, “I didn’t have an accent until I came to America.” He also showed his good nature when he was asked if he had had a Bar Mitzvah. He smiled and said, “I don’t know. But I am going to have one when I turn 83. And you are all invited.” By sharing Mr. Herskovitz’s story with you today, I hope that I have helped everyone learn how important history is in making us who we are today. I hope that I have honored the Witness to History Holocaust Awareness Project and helped in “Preserving History to Learn from the Past.”