Holocaust survivor Anita Schorr spent 90 minutes recounting her painful, early memories in concentration camps to a rapt audience of Rochambeau Middle School eighth graders at an assembly held on March 19th. A physical representation of hope and perseverance, Schorr detailed her years of hard labor in four German concentration camps during World War II.
Woven throughout her personal story was a common thread of speaking up for injustice. Schorr fervently believes that the free world kept silent during the Holocaust and millions may have been liberated sooner had someone stood up to say ‘no’. Schorr very simply but firmly told the students, many at the same age as she was during the Holocaust, “When faced with something wrong, do not stay silent.”
The RMS eighth graders are studying World War II now, including the Holocaust. They will be reading memoirs from the Holocaust in English class, and in the spring will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. The eighth grade teachers believe Mrs. Schorr’s story will enrich the students’ work and thinking about the Holocaust.
In advance of Schorr’s visit, RMS teachers prepared the students with historic background about how the Nazis gained support and power after World War I.
“We introduced students to the Pyramid of Hate that begins with stereotyping at the base, then moves from those feelings and ideas into action like discrimination, then on up toward violence at the pinnacle. We showed them how stereotypes can lead to action unless that cycle is interrupted or challenged by people who intervene,” said Deborah Frost, RMS 8th grade history teacher.
Schorr’s first-hand oral history supported that which the students had learned.
A native of Czechoslovakia, Schorr was arrested with her family in 1939 when she was a young girl. The family survived the Jewish ghetto and was transported to the Terezin concentration camp.
“In spring 1941, we were shoved into airless cattle cars with small windows and a pail in the corner to accommodate the forty or fifty of us,” said Schorr. “The Nazis moved us to Auschwitz where they separated us from our families, took away our belongings, and put us into barracks with strangers.”
Schorr described the all-consuming hunger she, her mother, and younger brother, Michael, endured on a daily basis.
“You wake up hungry, you go to sleep hungry…it occupies your whole psyche and chops at your humanity and dignity. Hunger is your second you.”
In early summer 1943, they were again loaded onto cattle cars for days without water or food. They arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a camp in southwest Poland commonly known as the extermination camp. The prisoners were deloused, shaved from head to toe, given striped uniforms with the identifying marker sewn on, and stamped with a tattoo on their forearm. Those pre-destined for the gas chambers never received uniforms or tattoos.
“This was scientifically-designed destruction,” stressed Schorr. Looking over the 180 students, she whispered, “I still don’t understand how people can be so cruel to one another.”
Throughout this horror, she thought that someone must know what was happening at the camps, but the free world stayed silent, she repeated.
Leaving behind her mother and brother to certain death, Schorr served in a slave-labor unit in Hamburg before ending up in Bergen-Belzen. Just shy of her 15th birthday, on April 15, 1945, British soldiers liberated the concentration camp which had recently been abandoned by the Germans. She then spent six weeks in a military hospital where she learned her father had died weeks before during a death march.
Anita Schorr immigrated to Israel after the war where she married and had a son. She later moved to the United States in 1959 and currently lives in Westport, CT. After 30 years of silence, Schorr began to speak about her experience in the Holocaust.
She spent the war digging trenches and was the only member of her family to survive. Today, she encourages her audience not to be content with just saying “never again,” but rather to take action and make sure that it is not possible for another Holocaust to take place.
“I am here to remind you for all the days to come,” Schorr stressed to the students, “you are in power to make a difference, to not stay silent. When you see someone picked on or discriminated against – any little thing that you see -- be a hero and step in. Only you can make a better world.”
The presentation by Anita Schorr was made possible through the support of the RMS PTO, parents in the community, friends of parents in Southbury who drove Anita here and back from Westport, the RMS staff and teachers, student volunteers Abbey D., Tyler E., Courtney G., and John D., and school administrators Mr. Anthony Salutari and Mrs. Deborah Schultz.