By Alec Rich
Although just 73 years removed from the horrific events of the Holocaust, there is a tendency in our society to simply put that catastrophe behind us and attempt to forget the tremendous suffering that took place. Through sporadic textbook readings and pieces of literature, many students are able to gain a brief understanding of the Holocaust during their time in school, only to forget about much of what they have learned a short time after. Unless one has visited a Holocaust museum around the country or traveled to sites in Europe, it can sometimes be difficult for students to fully grasp the realities of those dark times. In light of the current political and ideological tensions that exist both in this country and around the world, it is not difficult to see why educating others about the Holocaust has become an important topic of discussion.
On Wednesday, April 25, Great Neck North High School held its own Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began with a presentation by Fred Gross, whose family was heavily impacted by the events of the Holocaust. Gross works with the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center (HMTC) of Nassau County to tell his family’s story and educate others about the importance of remembering what took place during this tragic period in our history.
He began by speaking about the rather comfortable childhood of both of his parents and extended family in what was then Czechoslovakia, where they enjoyed political freedom despite being Jewish. Until the time of his parents’ marriage, the family was prosperous. Soon after, Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia, immediately bringing an end to their political freedom, and many members of the family dispersed around the globe.
Gross’s parents chose to remain and, through the rest of his presentation, he spoke about his father’s experience in the Czech First Army Corp, fighting alongside the Russian Army on the eastern front in opposition to the German Army; his mother’s simultaneous heroism and suffering at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz; as well as their eventual reuniting after the war. Much of his presentation focused on his mother, who risked her life many times by stealing a spoon from the Nazis so her niece would eat, sabotaging the German war effort by not filling bullets with gunpowder and walking many miles through Eastern Europe following her salvation in order to find her husband. The suffering that she and many other members of Gross’s family endured was expressed throughout the presentation, which not only served to highlight the horrific events of the Holocaust, but also revealed the level of inhumanity that can result from the dangerous observance of a single truth.
Following Gross’s presentation, which was predominantly seen by sophomores and seniors, the floor was opened to questions, many of which demonstrated how engaged the students were in understanding Gross’s story.
“I’ve had the privilege of hearing Fred’s presentation before, as we invited him to last year’s Humanities Class, and through visits to the HMTC,” said ESL teacher Susanne Marcus. “One thing that struck me this morning was the students’ responses to Fred’s talk. Students were attentive and thoughtful despite coming in early on such a rainy, dreary day. You could feel a connection to Fred from the audience. This does not always happen with speakers in this large setting. It made me think that the only effective way to teach history is through personal eyewitness accounts. His presentation included aspects of world history that a textbook could never convey to students.”
Accompanying the presentation was a set of workshops in the school library, both student and faculty run, which each served to highlight a different area of Holocaust study, including Holocaust music, poetry, medical experiments, survivor testimony, women of the resistance and contemporary genocides. In addition, HMTC donated a separate exhibit which was viewable to students throughout the day.
This hands-on style of educating students about the Holocaust, paired with Gross’s presentation, was meant to provide students with an immersive and emotional experience that they simply would not be able to gain from a textbook. The larger takeaway of the day, however, was the message conveyed by both Gross’s presentation and the library workshops. Although we have made great strides in our society since the time of the Holocaust to become more inclusive and aware of suppression around the world, we still have a lot of work to do. Part of ensuring a better future relies on teaching young people, especially high schoolers, about the previous wrongs of the world so they will be more well-informed and aware in their adult lives.
“Even though this community has a large Jewish population and the school has a large Jewish population, in part because of the changing demographics of this community and the sad reality that genocides continue in the world, it’s important that students hear the message of never again, and understand the importance of single acts of courage,” said Social Studies Department Head Susan Babkes.
North High School Principal Daniel Holtzman said of the day’s events, “I thought that the speaker, Mr. Gross, was very engaging and he was able to really personalize the story. Given that the information he was sharing was directly from his parents, he was able to put his own research and how it impacted him and what he saw or how he saw it impact his family was an amazing depiction of one family’s fight to survive. I think that really helped set the tone for the day. I think the library stations also went well, and the students did an amazing job in facilitating and presenting information to all the students that attended. For our first time doing a big event like this, I thought it went well.”
As far as what the future holds for North’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Holtzman said, “There’s always room for improvement, we’ll talk and debrief about things we liked and things we think can do better for next year, but our hope is that the day had an impact on students and it’s something that we hope to make an annual event.” He added that, “it is very possible that we could potentially expand it out…and we certainly would like to open it up to more students next year.”
As the search for justice continues throughout the world, it is important that we learn from the past and place an emphasis on speakers like Gross, as well as events like those which took place at North High School on April 25 so that we can not only work to enhance the global awareness of North High School’s student body, but also the Great Neck community at large.