“Every day before I went to sleep, I said, ‘God, please let me see the light the next day,’” David Tuck said, recalling his childhood during the Holocaust, when he lived off of bread and coffee.
Tuck was 10 when Germany invaded his hometown in Poland. He was deported to a series of labor camps, where he worked constructing an autobahn, building guns and planes, and taking jewelry and other objects from graves to give to Nazis. American troops liberated him on May 5, 1945. He spent the next few months in refugee camps, and finally made his way to the United States in 1950.
“I thought every day was going to be the last day,” he said.
In the week leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Tuck discussed his experiences with schools around the country through a Skype program at the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center (HAMEC). He also spoke at the University of Pennsylvania on Jan. 31.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In schools, universities and synagogues throughout Philadelphia, programming around the day sought to teach the history of the Holocaust, so it’s not doomed to be repeated.
And with Nazi parties on the rise in Europe, and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., Tuck’s goal to make sure it never happens comes with renewed vigor. This motivated him to recently co-write his story in a book called David Tuck: A Story of Holocaust Survival.
“I always [tell] the students, ‘Get an education and, in the future, make sure this never happens again,’” Tuck said.
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-District 13), who spoke at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am on Jan. 28 for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, expressed similar sentiments about the day’s importance in light of the political atmosphere.
“There were people in the early 1930s who naively said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about what’s going on, it’s just crazy rhetoric. Nothing will ever come of it,’” Boyle said. “There were some people who considered Hitler a joke figure, [that] he didn’t really mean what he was saying. That proved to be dangerously naive, so my view is we always have to take any expression of Nazi views very seriously and do all we can to combat it.”
Boyle, who advoctated for the law requiring Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools, has sponsored similar legislation requiring Holocaust education in schools across the country. The bill has both Democratic and Republican sponsors and has received bipartisan support. Boyle said that education is the most effective way of fighting anti-Semitism.
“One of the best ways we can combat against that hate is through teaching young people the past, and what happened in previous eras when hate speech was allowed to go unchecked and a group of human beings were delegitimized and dehumanized,” Boyle said.
Earlier in the week, on Jan. 24, several organizations co-hosted an event with Holocaust survivor Peter Stern at Penn Hillel. Stern, who is originally from Nuremberg, Germany, spoke about his personal experiences with the Holocaust. He was deported several times to a ghetto and different camps — his father dying along the way — before British troops liberated him on April 15, 1945.
On Jan. 25 at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Steven Pressman, producer of the HBO documentary 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. & Mrs. Kraus — as well as the author of a book on the same subject — spoke about the story of American heroism during the Holocaust portrayed in his documentary.
His documentary and book feature Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a couple from Philadelphia who ventured into Germany before the outbreak of the Holocaust to rescue 50 children. This particular talk focused on Robert Schless, a pediatrician friend of the Krauses who accompanied them to Germany.
“We know that there are, with each passing year, fewer and fewer survivors because they’ve gotten old, and they’re dying off,” Pressman said. “So, stories like this are very important because they’re reminders to us to never forget what happened. … A story like this is also a wonderful reminder that … ordinary people always have the ability to rise above themselves and do something extraordinary and heroic.”
Connecting the dwindling number of remaining Holocaust survivors to different groups is a major goal of HAMEC’s programming, and HAMEC Education Director Geoffrey Quinn said they usually see an uptick of interest around International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
HAMEC works with more than 30 Holocaust survivors, such as Tuck, in the Philadelphia area. The center connects the survivors to schools, churches and other organizations throughout the year for speaking engagements. Quinn said the survivors’ main message at these speaking engagements is to stand up against hatred and bigotry.
“It really [falls] on the shoulders of the second- and third-generation students who are fortunate enough to meet with these individuals to continue their legacy,” Quinn said. “The most important part of Holocaust remembrance is the individual heroes that endured such horrors and were able to overcome adversity and are dedicated to educating future generations about what happened to them so it never happens again.”
HAMEC also had some additional programming specifically for International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, such as a production of Lida Stein and the Righteous Gentile, a play about the relationship between a Jewish girl and her gentile friend in the years leading to the Holocaust.
“I have family — I have a daughter, three grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren,” Tuck said. “I don’t want to happen the same things. It could happen. You never know.”
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