Holocaust Survivors Provide First-Person Historical Lesson to High School East Students

Werner Reich speaks on screen to students in theater. thumbnail214486

High School East 10th graders are receiving an important, first-person historical lesson this week.

The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County is providing speakers to meet virtually with the students to discuss the atrocities of the Holocaust and World War II.

Fifth period on Monday, Holocaust survivor Werner Reich told his family story to David Cummings’ social studies students, who had assembled in the school’s Little Theater.

Reich and his family were residents of Berlin, Germany, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in 1933.

“I am alive,” Reich, now 94, told the students. “And I am grateful for that.”

Reich’s father, an electrical and mechanical engineer, lost his job after the Nazis came to power, prompting the family to flee to Zagreb, Yugoslavia.

One year later, the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia.

Reich’s mother placed him in hiding with several families. One family worked for the resistance movement, and Reich assisted in that work.

In 1943, Reich was arrested by the Gestapo, beaten and jailed for seven weeks. He was then sent to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz II concentration camps.

He later was one of 89 out of 6,000 transferred to Auschwitz. The others did not survive.

“They were killing people by the thousands every day,” Reich told the students about Auschwitz I. “All together 1.1 million were murdered in Auschwitz alone, just in this one single camp. And the rest of us, we had to smell burning hair and flesh. Big clouds emerged from these chimneys, and we suddenly found ourselves like mice in a trap. And there was nothing we could do.”

Reich added that he has been speaking to groups for three or four decades and, “I’ve never yet been able to describe the constant cold, constant shivering from the cold. You get constantly afraid. You get constantly hungry.”

In January 1945, with Auschwitz on the verge of being liberated by the Allies, Reich was part of a seven-day “death march” in freezing temperatures that ended at a concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria.

“We just collapsed, screaming with pain, because our feet were frozen. After three days my feet started to rot,” said Reich, who noted he had toes amputated without anesthetic. 

The SS abandoned the camp, and Reich and other prisoners were stranded without food.

After liberation four months later by U.S. troops, he returned to Yugoslavia. Two years later he escaped to England, where he worked as a laborer. He later became a tool and die maker.

In 1955 he married a girl who had been saved by Sir Nicholas Winton, a British banker who had helped to rescue children from the Nazis. They immigrated to the United States, where he eventually became an engineer.

He has two sons and four grandchildren and is a frequent speaker and founding member of the Long Island Multi-Faith Forum. 

Reich advised the students that they should care about the Holocaust regardless of whether or not they were Jewish. He noted that while it’s widely known that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust, he reminded students that 12 million people in total died, including Black people, handicapped people, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Reich warned against the dangers of broadly labeling groups, such as Hitler did with Jews.

Teacher Shaun Minton and teaching assistant Julie Harmon helped organize the week of Holocaust speaking engagements. Minton teaches an elective course at the high school, “Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Class.”

“Things don’t come easy,” Reich said. “Solutions to complex problems of life, the economy and relationships are never just one word or one simple solution — one size fits all. Just be aware of that. Because the consequences can be disastrous not just for you, but your children and your grandchildren.”

Date Added: 3/14/2022