October 25, 2010
Text and photos by Ted Regencia
SKOKIE, Ill — From Independence, IA, to Joliet, IL, 110 high school students recently convened in Skokie to learn about standing up against bullying, leadership and diversity.
The event takes on greater significance following highly publicized reports of bullying across the nation, said Rachel Hellenga, director of program services at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
Hellenga recounted to Skokie Patch a scene during a recent morning session, when the students were asked to stand up if they know anyone bullied in school.
“One hundred percent of the students stood up indicating that they knew someone who had been bullied,” she said. “So we know that this is still a very relevant issue today.”
Even at an early age, students can be “a political force in the world” by becoming “upstanders” rather than “bystanders” on issues, whether in school or in their communities, Hellenga added.
In a rare gathering, 9th- to 11th-graders came face to face with 13 Holocaust survivors and a Rwanda genocide witness at the museum.
Dubbed as Student Leadership Day, the event focused on empowering young people by teaching them “strategies for combating prejudice and preventing hatred among others.”
Darriyan Smith, 16, of North Grand High School in Chicago agreed with Hellenga. She said bullying is happening in her school.
Milomir Suvira, 15, of West Aurora High School echoed Smith’s observation, saying it is an ongoing problem. She added that many students do not have enough skills to deal with the problem.
Suvira, who is originally from Serbia, which saw its share of ethnic wars in the 1990s, said the conference is helpful in educating student leaders how to stand up for their peers.
The museum’s director of education, Noreen Brand, said part of the challenge is to help young people to understand “that we’re all the same, and accept each other for who we are.”
“We might be able to put a stop to bullying if we could become accepting of our own human race, and that concept of ‘no human is more human than any other human,’ ” Brand said. “Let’s celebrate differences. Let’s not pick on others that are different or appear to be different.”
Drawing some parallels to the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews and millions of non-Jews, she drew attention to human behavior and how “bystanders” have the opportunity “to make decisions, to become a perpetrator or to become an upstander.”
“That spills right into looking at the issues of bullying,” Brand said.
In one of the more poignant scenes of the daylong event, the students met with Rodi Waterman Glass, 74, who was born in The Netherlands and was 6 years old when her whole family was rounded up by the Nazis and taken to the Westerbork concentration camp.
The students sat silently and listened intently as Glass recalled the “horrors” of the German invasion.
“Our lives were changed forever,” she said of the 1940 invasion at the start of World War II.
Glass recounted with a mixed of humor, how her family, the Watermans, avoided being sent to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, twice.
In 1942, while her family was being processed to be sent to Auschwitz, they were spotted by a German officer, who was a friend of her uncle, and the officer took their names off the list.
“That was our first stroke of good luck,” Glass said, adding that nobody knew that Auschwitz was a Nazi extermination camp.
After returning briefly to the capital, Amsterdam, her family was sent for the second time to Westerbork, which was converted into a labor camp. They again awaited their fate.
The students cringed as Glass described the camp’s living conditions, which includes one restroom for 500 people, and bunk beds with straw mattresses.
The family escaped catastrophe after the German guards were duped into thinking they were British citizens. They were eventually sent to a different camp in Vittel, France, until U.S. forces liberated them in 1944.
Of the 140,000 Jews in The Netherlands before the war, only about 30,000 survived and 5,000 of them returned to Amsterdam, including Glass’ family.
“To lose everybody at one time is very traumatic,” she said, adding that her father’s family was “totally annihilated.”
Glass’ family eventually migrated to the U.S. and settled in Chicago.
“Our whole life is just luck. We were just lucky people,” she added.
Her voice cracking, as she held back tears, Glass then showed a laminated certificate of her U.S. citizenship to spontaneous applause from the audience.
Following the presentation, the students broke off into smaller groups, for an even more intimate talk with 12 other Holocausts victims, including non-Jewish Polish survivor, John Krawiec.
Krawiec, 91, was part of the underground Polish militia that resisted the German occupation. After his arrest, he was tortured by the Gestapo, the German secret police, and spent two years in different concentration camps.
Eventually, he ended up at the extermination camp called Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where 960,000 to 4 million people were killed by the Nazis, before he was sent to the Buchenwald labor camp.
Another survivor is Cipora Katz, a Jewish of Polish lineage, who was only 4 years old when her family of eight–minus her mother and sister who was left behind–escaped under fire from one of the ghettoes where the Nazis confined the Jews.
“Treat everyone like you want to be treated,” Katz reminded the students, after retelling her harrowing story of hiding under “terrible conditions” inside a potato silo for 22 months and three days.
While in hiding, Katz’s father died. Meanwhile, her mother and sister and other family members were rounded up, and ended up at the Treblinka extermination camp where they died along with an estimated 800,000 Jews and 50,000 Romanis who traced roots from India.