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Posts Tagged ‘Power of Teaching’

033

Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.

008-2

We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.

085

Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.

094

We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.

131

The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.

117

We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.

220

You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

007

They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.

196

 

****

GET THE BOOK HERE

**************************************************************************************************************************************

‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.

http://poststar.com/news/local/local-sailor-who-died-at-pearl-harbor-remembered-by-teacher/article_8b7006ad-ba5f-5544-85a4-131a5a0b9430.html

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

As of Nov. 30, 2016 the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …

http://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Releases/

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

http://www.pbs.org/program/pearl-harbor-uss-oklahoma-final-story/

 

 

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A reminder for Veterans Day. My classroom is gone now, but Mr. P is still with us, at 95. I hope the lessons stick with you, kids.-MR

 

the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

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033

Paige and flag. Credit: Dan Hogan

We walked in the snow, squinting against the early winter sun, moving past the headstones in one of the older cemeteries in our town. Small talk wound down as we approached our destination. We stopped, and greeted the reporter who met us there for the event. Austin opened the small bag of black river stones, and each student picked one to write a message onto.

008-2

We approached the grave. Well, it is not really a grave, you see—a nineteen year old kid’s body lies somewhere back in Hawaii, at a place called Pearl Harbor. His parents lay just to the south of this marker, passing on 14 and 18 years later. The kid’s body was never properly identified. He lies in a mass grave somewhere else, far, far away.

And here in his hometown, there is not even a flag on his marker. Why should there be? As far as I know, there is no immediate close family left here to tend to his stone, and he is not even here.

But we buy a flag, and Paige affixes it to the holder.

085

Teacher and student. Credit: Dan Hogan

Paige holds the 1942 yearbook senior class dedication, and I pull out a copy of his photograph, and say a few words.

Seventy-five years after his death, after his parents’ pain and anguish at the telegram announcing he was ‘missing in action’, after his classmates’ angst that following June at graduating without him into the new world of 1942, where so many of them would go on to fight and die along with him, a bunch of kids from his high school return. The 17 and 18 year olds are on the cusp of entering a new world themselves, along with them the 55 year old man who was once also a young graduate-to-be of Hudson Falls High School.

094

We come to remember, and to set down our memorial stones.

131

The kids speak to the reporter, and we pose for one last picture.

117

We are here for all of 15 minutes before the bus has to return to the school to make another run, due to parent-teacher conferences at the elementary level. It is quick, a surgical tactical strike in an overly crowded and rushed school day; some might say, hardly worth the effort.

220

You wonder if the lesson will stay with them.

007

They leave this cemetery, some certainly forever, to go out into the world, having paid their respects to the boy from Hudson Falls whose future ended on December 7th, 1941.

196

 

****

GET THE BOOK HERE

*************************************************************************************

‘One of Their Own’

Local sailor who died at Pearl Harbor remembered by teacher, students

From the Remembering Pearl Harbor, 75 years later series

by BILL TOSCANO btoscano@poststar.com

HUDSON FALLS — On a windy Tuesday morning, in a snow-covered cemetery, Matt Rozell’s history class took a somber turn.

Rozell and about 25 Hudson Falls High School seniors stood in the fresh snow at a memorial stone that read, “H. Randolph Holmes,” followed by the words, “Died in action at Pearl Harbor,” “Age 19 yrs” and “U.S. Navy.”

Holmes had been a student in Hudson Falls’ Class of 1942 but left school early, joined the Navy and was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t forget Randy,” Rozell told the group, which had taken a quick bus ride on Route 4 to the Moss Street Cemetery. “Especially you in the Class of 2017 because it’s the 75th anniversary of the year he should have graduated.”

Holmes was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma during the attack and was one of 429 men killed when the ship was struck and capsized. Like many of the sailors on the Oklahoma, his body was not recovered for 18 months and has never been identified. Holmes was buried, with the other “unknown” Oklahoma sailors, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”

Several years ago, one of Rozell’s students located Holmes’ name on the memorial to those who died on the Oklahoma.

Two of Rozell’s students said Tuesday they had no idea a former Hudson Falls student had died at Pearl Harbor.

“I had no clue,” said Alex Prouty, who went on to talk about what she and her classmates had

learned about the attack. “We learned that there was a loss of a lot of lives and that a lot of people went missing. No one was prepared for it, and our military did the best they could to protect us.”

Jacob Fabian said he learned about Holmes in class as well.

“Before class, no, I didn’t know anything, but now, yes, because of Mr. Rozell’s book,” Fabian said. “We learned a lot about Pearl Harbor, what its effects were, why and how it happened and how monumental it was.”

 During the brief ceremony Tuesday morning, one of the students held up a picture of Holmes from the Class of 1942 yearbook and another held the yearbook itself as they stood by the memorial stone. Rozell had a student hand out black stones, and the students wrote on them and left them on the stone.

“This year’s yearbook is also going to have a page for Randy,” said Rozell, who has written two books on World War II and is working on several more. “It’s important for us to remember him.”

Photo by Steve Jacobs, Post Star, Moss St Cemetery, Hudson Falls, NY, 12-6-2017.

Identification ongoing

Holmes may yet come home.

Five formerly “unknown” sailors from the USS Oklahoma were identified in January, using medical records. The identifications are the first to come from a project that began in April 2015 when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns.

The first exhumations took place June 8, 2015, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9, 2015.

Sixty-one caskets were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open.

The remains were removed and cleaned and photographed. The skeletons were flown to the lab in Nebraska for further analysis, but skulls were retained in Hawaii, where the Defense Department’s forensic dentists are based.

http://poststar.com/news/local/local-sailor-who-died-at-pearl-harbor-remembered-by-teacher/article_8b7006ad-ba5f-5544-85a4-131a5a0b9430.html

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

UPDATE: 

As of Nov. 30, the Pentagon says it has ID’d 21 of the 388 unknowns.

You can see the news releases here. Hopefully someday they’ll ID Randy Holmes …

http://www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Releases/

 

 A highly recommended PBS video is below.

http://www.pbs.org/program/pearl-harbor-uss-oklahoma-final-story/

 

 

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Thirty years ago next month I began my career teaching history in a summer school, getting my foot in the door. Shortly thereafter I wound up back at my own high school, just eight years after telling my parents I was leaving my hometown for good (I had also told my history teacher father that I certainly was NOT going to be an educator like him and my school-nurse mom). Now I was living in their garage, no less, commuting up the main street to my old high school in my dad’s  hand-me-down car. Karma can be a bitch.

So there I was, a rookie newbie history teacher shuffling from class to class with with no classroom to call my own, pushing a cart like an unknown peddler through the crowded halls of my alma mater. There were times when I was sure I was going to leave the profession in those early days. (Maybe in some of the later ones too.) But I kept plugging, through the rough days and good. I didn’t quit.

 

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

New York State Education Department Building. Photo by Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This week I was called to Albany to be honored by the New York State Education Department Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education herself. It is close to the highest honor that a teacher in this state can have, to get a standing ovation from the movers and shakers in the field, to sit at their table and be able to thank them for the recognition and to explain why you think that your career path was somehow ordained by forces beyond your control. To the Louis E. Yavner Award Committee, thank you for counting me as worthy.

 

IMG_0013

 

Commisioner Elia's (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Commissioner Elia’s (L) tweet. Chancellor Rosa, asked me to sit in her chair and address the Regents at their meeting, May 17. 2016.

Sometimes you lie awake and wonder if it has been worth it. I guess I don’t really need an award to tell me that it has, but it feels nice, and I hope that other teachers know that they make the same difference everyday.

Sometimes karma is not such a bitch, after all.

Video of acceptance speech below.

New York State United Teachers article here.

New York State Legislature recognition below.

 

 

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My friend Gordon Hanna died the other day. He was my electrician, and I’m sure the electrician for half of the small town I live in, at least. He was 90.

He was also a World War II veteran. How wonderful that we had the foresight to interview him at his homestead here in Hartford a few years back. We always ask, ‘when and where were you born’. Kaylee got a surprise when he pointed up over his head- to the bedroom upstairs. As Gordon’s generation go, we are leaving an older world behind. I’m not convinced that the newer one is better.

I always say that this is the toughest part about doing projects like these; your friends go and die on you.

Next time I flip the switch in my house I’ll think of him.

Gordon Hanna : There was a big farm down the road. It was the Clifford Sheldon farm, about a three hundred acre farm. And I started working for him when I was eleven year old. Nights after school, and Saturdays and Sundays.
Kaylee Merlow (student interviewer): Where your parents farmers, or …?
GH: My parents, lived down the road, where my father, and my uncle, and my grandfather, owned Hanna Hardware up in Hartford, up here.
KM: Was it difficult for you to balance both school and working on a farm?
GH: No, it wasn’t that bad. Because you got out early. We got out about three o’clock. You would work until dark. But, I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I did all the plowing and fitting the ground and like that. I thought I was doing pretty good. I was getting $1 a day. When that’s when, grown men, that’s all they were getting for work at that time.
KM: Were you raised in like a religious home or….? Like did you attending church every Sunday?
GH: Yes I went to church regularity. White church, Congregational church up here. Then later on I taught Sunday school up there.
KM: Mr. Rozell told me that you worked in Smiths Basin harvesting ice?
GH: Yes, Mr. Rozell thought that that might be something you hadn’t ever heard of. Well, milk was transported from all the farms. There used to be a lot more farms around here than there are now. And the milk was transported in cans. Over to Smiths Basin there’s a big, well, you ever go through Smiths Basin, across the railroad tracks? There’s still a great big building there. That was a creamery. And the milk was all taken in there. Well in that time there was no chemical refrigeration as you know it today, so we had to refrigerate everything with ice. So the canal runs right along there and up the canal right next to the locks they used to cut the ice. They cut it with an old model Ford motor and a great big 48 inch round circle saw. Which you probably never saw sawing wood or anything but that’s what they used. And they cut slices in the ice two feet wide and then they would cross cut them, every three feet, so a cake of ice was two by three by whatever depth it froze to. Long later in the winter, February, like that, they would get up to three feet thick. So a cake of ice, at that time, would weigh probably three hundred lbs. They had, the canal sits a lot lower than about the bank up here when you go down the canal. They had a long ramp made of wood with sides on it, narrow sides like that [hand gestures for ramp], with a walkway up and down it. Then they had a winch, up on top, which one of the farmers would bring his tractor there and run this winch. And they had what the called a ‘crab’ which was a metal thing, shaped like that [hand gestures], with a handle up there. What they would do, they had this ice all scored. They would take it and they had it right up to that ramp. They would take spuds,  just a big knife, about that wide [hand gestures for width], sharp, on a handle. They take that go in the scores where they scored the ice, and that would split off the cakes, individual cakes. They would bring them over to the ramp. Then they would  hook that back of it, then the farmer would start the winch, pulling it up. He’d have to walk along the side of it to keep it from kicking up.
KM: My gosh.
GH: Well, some of the guys he’d go up then up onto a platform up on top. Then all the farmers that brought in milk would have their trucks there. That was a big thing, since that paid good money at that time. And they would slide it onto the trucks, then they’d transport it over to the ice house. Then at the ice house, they had a …. Ice house, about three stories high, they had a big frame work that went up. It had a, like an elevator, well it was slanted like that, made of steel. A farmer would have a tractor on a winch, at that point. He would slide the cake on, when he brought out the truck, it would go onto the elevator. Of course it started down oh say this high, so the elevator would just go up , the cake would slide off into the ice house. Well, as it got a layer of ice, of course it kept going higher and higher and higher. Enough, about three stories high.
KM: When did you ice harvest?
GH: January. It was done in January and February.
KM: So it was only just two months?
GH: Yes.
KM: Because an ice house can only be –
GH: Yes. It normally started in January, which was of course good for me because – [interrupted]
KM: Because of the timing?
GH: -The vacation in January, from school. And I was able to get on the job, that was a privilege to get on that job because at that time, it was paying as I remember, I think it was paying $5 an hour – when the average man was getting $1 a day.

Interviewed by Kaylee Merlow, Dec. 19, 2010.

 

 

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So, how was your weekend? We had a great one here, weatherwise. I have the pics to prove it.

Im call this one, 'harbinger'.

I call this one, ‘harbinger’.

 

But, in reality, I did not get out too much, other than to feed the horses and move up some firewood with the tractor. I wasn’t here, really.

I was portalling over 70 years into the past, fast. I was working on my new book, I was researching and writing. I had questions that needed to be answered. So I read the entire transcript of the Belsen trial that followed the liberation of the camp. I highlighted, I made notes, all day Saturday. And on Sunday, I wrote.

One of my students asked me on Friday, what I was going to do this weekend? He already knew the answer, as he asks every Friday. But what he may not know, is that I do it for him, and for the sake of humanity. It’s not easy, but I feel that I have made a breakthrough here. This is my life’s work, after all.

So, back to school tomorrow. He’ll ask how my weekend was.

Intense. Someday soon you will know, too.

 

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I’ve been working a bit lately on my next two upcoming books, The Things Our Fathers Saw II and the one closest to my heart, working title, A Train Near Magdeburg or The Last Transport. And I have been struggling with that book for years. It’s a hard story to tell because it has to be done right, the first time.

TNMMy own personal connection and closeness to the subject has been documented at this blog since 2007, when we hosted the first reunion before a student audience at our high school, when we knew of only 2 liberators and 4 survivors. Today, that number has grown over 7 fold. Unbeknownst when we began, this story has grown and taken over the second half of my career as an educator.

Trying to take on the subject matter of the Holocaust as a classroom teacher is a daunting task, and one not to be taken lightly. Trying to convey that through the eyes of your survivor friends is exponentially difficult. But when you open yourself up, palms up and arms out, especially at the authentic sites where millions of families suffered, there is a coupling of the past and the present.

It’s not an easy thing to open yourself up to. But if you think that it is all in the past, you are very, very mistaken.

Now throw into the mix the experience of the young American boys, battle hardened and hardly innocents by now, who stumbled across the train and the horrors of the Holocaust. Confronted with the reality of sick and starving people, and a war in its closing days where the enemy, the perpetrators of this evil, are still shooting at them. They have a mission they have been tasked with, and it’s not a humanitarian rescue operation that they trained for.

Oh no. They had no idea. Many of these young guys were haunted for life by what they encountered.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. In my case, more like one hundred thousand. Behind the camera, the major in the jeep snaps a photo as specters emerge from the springtime morning mist. The little girl turns her head in terror at the two monsters clamoring behind the jeep with the white star,  Tanks 12 and 13 of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division of the United States Army. It is April 13, 1945, deep in the heart of the Reich. Friday the 13th. Tank 13 stays on after securing the perimeter to protect the vulnerable from their would-be murderers.

For the young beautiful men with perfect teeth and handsome uniforms, the first instinct is to recoil. This is not natural and these people have been reduced to stinking animals. Lice infested. Stench ridden. Infected with bad, bad disease. Revulsion and vomiting is a common reaction.  These are not human beings.

But, they are.

They are.

And what are we going to do about this? The battalion commander cocks his .45 and calmly places it to the head of the local burgermeister when he displays reluctance to comply with the order to open homes and feed the prisoners.

And next up on the roller coaster ride for the incredulous GIs  is stomping rage and jags of crying. Generations later, an 89 year old tells me, “My parents wondered why I couldn’t sleep at night, after returning home.”

The soldiers transport the victims out of the line of fire. The medics get to work. People continue to die, but somehow humanity returns. The war ends. The survivors and the soldiers go their own ways, most refusing to speak of this time for decades. For many, the trauma passes onto the children  of the generations that come after.

And then, in the twilight of living memory, a high school teacher with an unassuming project has the encounter with the unknown photographs, and asks the unasked questions.

Seventy years later, across time and space, the portal has been entered. The wires of the cosmos have been tripped. And the universe channels the unassuming power of love across the abyss as the aged rescuers and survivors and their descendants are brought together to meet again.

It is a miracle of healing and reconnection. A cosmic circuit has been completed, but maybe, in some small way, another pathway to undoing a tragic cycle is opened. And it is not a coincidence.

As I wrap up this post, I am pinged with an email from my ‘second mom’ in Toronto, survivor Ariela. She was 11 when she was liberated on the train with her aunt. Her parents and grandparents were murdered in Poland by the Germans. She’s good on Facebook, but has a tough time with email. She’s thinking of me, and the book which has to tell the story. The email comes through now, loud and clear.

This is the train that should have led to death. Instead, it leads to life, and a legacy of the triumph of good over evil. And maybe, just maybe, amidst all of the horror and the suffering, there is a lesson here, somewhere.

I’d like to think so.

 

 

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Helen Sperling passed away last week. She was an incredible woman, a Holocaust survivor whose mantra was “Thou shalt not be a bystander.”

I spoke at the annual Yom Hashoah lecture that she sponsored for her community in Utica a few years back. She lived about 100 miles away, so her friend Marsha drove her to Saratoga Springs, the halfway point for us, so that she could meet me and vet me for herself before committing to my lecture. I passed the test. later, my friends at the USHMM found some of her liberation documents for me, which I sent to her. I even found one of the US soldiers who liberated her, in the town near me.

The article and post below is from a couple years ago. I love the photo. Godspeed, Helen. Rest assured that all those whom you touched, will keep the memory alive.

******

Helen is a friend of mine. She was liberated in April 1945 by a division of American soldiers that included our high school secretary’s uncle.

At her invitation I traveled to central NY to speak 2 years ago.

She is still going strong. I love her! Her central message to students-“The world needs saving. So, get to it!”

BY RACHEL MURPHY
Rome Observer Staff Writer

Staff Photo by RACHEL MURPHY--Curtis Thompson, an eighth grader at Strough hugs Helen Sperling, a 93-year-old who survived the Holocaust. Sperling shared her story with the eighth grade class on Wednesday, after she finished every student hugged her.

ROME, NY. — Holocaust survivor Helen Sperling, 93, recounted the darkest moment of her life before a crowd of more than 300 eighth-graders at Lyndon H. Strough Middle School on Wednesday.

Sperling spoke for two hours about her time in the concentration camps.

Sperling was born to a middle class family where she lived in Poland.

During a school vacation when she was 22 years old, the Germans invaded her home and took her family into a ghetto.

“For the first time in my life, I was completely and utterly helpless,” she said.

During her time in the ghetto, Sperling remembered being able to contact a close friend to wish her a happy birthday. But when Sperling called her friend, who was a Gentile, the friend responded with a racial slur.

“You did not realize who was your friend and who was your enemy,” she said.

She explained that like many other Jewish families, hers was eventually taken from the ghetto and separated into prison camps. She was first placed into Ravensbrück, where she was forced to perform demeaning tasks the Nazi’s used as a way to break her spirit.

But despite the torture, hunger and fear, Sperling managed to survive, along with her younger brother.

“Ninety-nine percent of our survival was sheer luck,” she said. “A little tiny bit of it was hanging on to dignity. Once you lost that, you didn’t have a chance.”

Sperling’s parents did not survive.

Her family was among the 6 million other Jews that were sent to death camps and were killed by the Nazis.

Sperling placed two family photographs on a table nearby as she spoke to the students.

“These are mine, and I miss them terribly,” she said of her family members.

However, she continues to share her story to hopefully inspire and educate others.

“I want them to know that they can do something. I don’t want them to be bystanders,” she said.

Sperling added that even though it is difficult to retell it’s worth it.

“As long as I can do and as many schools as I can cover I want to,” she said.

Assistant Principal Michael Stalteri explained that he hopes the students learn from Sperling’s life and positive outlook.

“Her story resonates with what goes on in their lives when they’re being persecuted, picked on, harassed, bullied or made to feel different,” he said. “Hearing Mrs. Sperling’s story of triumph and her message is exhilarating.”

After Sperling finished her story each student hugged her, and she gave them an anti-bullying bracelet.

http://romeobserver.com/articles/2013/03/15/news/doc5140d89a9dd53321768186.txt?viewmode=fullstory

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This past Friday, I spoke to scores of educators interested in the Holocaust and genocide, people who were also attempting to teach about these crimes against humanity. As a teacher, you have to be very committed to do this seriously- just to try to attempt to understand these events, let alone teach about them to young people.

I was invited by the New Jersey Council of Holocaust Educators in cooperation with the Center for the Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education at Brookdale College. I have my take on things, and that is what I am working on now, in my new book. I was also in some pretty good company.

My good friend and fellow educator Alan Bush, who drove two hours on his own time to come out and support me (even though he told me I was not as attractive as the previous speakers).

My good friend and fellow educator Alan Bush, who drove two hours on his own time to come out and support me (even though he told me I was not as attractive as the previous speakers).

In the morning Alexandra Zapruder engaged with the teachers by reading excerpts from her seminal work, Savaged Pages, Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, creating a dialogue about how the young people who left behind diaries left so much more than just the written word of their time of horror and oppression. This was not Anne Frank, but a deeper dialogue about attempting to make sense of the senseless, and the conflicting emotions that really encourage us to look into the abyss, beyond the standard narrative of what we think we know about the Holocaust- powerfully, from teenager to teenager. And Alex is the perfect vessel.

Meline Toumani read from her book, There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond, about growing up in the Armenian Diaspora community and her process of discovery in the context of the conflicting narratives of Armenian genocide of 1915 and her attempt to get to the root of her own self identity. Her book came out on the eve of the 100th anniversary, and the topic resonates especially as we try to make sense of the larger picture of genocide and the ripples that these actions, and our own re-actions, create. She spent her entire 30s in the process, and this is what also fascinated me, as her book is classified as a memoir. I am now tearing through her work, making notes, highlighting certain passages. For the passionate, writing indeed becomes a huge part of your life.

Then it was my turn.

I fumbled a bit, looking up this website to display for the crowd and typing in misspelling after misspelling for the Jumbotron, but quickly won them over by simply showing the teachers a photo of my classroom

the last generationand reminding them that I was also missing a day of school today,  but what were were all doing together had a meaning and importance that really transcended our normal daily routine. It was okay- we were in this together, and I would show them how one person could make a difference and that one person is YOU, the teacher.

So I began to tell my story, the one that I will be detailing in my upcoming book, about how I had no intention of becoming a teacher, in fact, NO intention of ever returning to my hometown after high school–and how seven years later I was living in a room off my parents’ garage, and working on the other side of the desk in the high school I swore I would never return to.  And it was survival mode for the first few years. If someone had shown me the easy way out, I would have jumped. But I did not, *for some reason*, and because I stuck with it I was standing before them that day, about to tell my story.

So I did. They laughed, and they got emotional. There were powerful messages imbedded in the narrative that followed, though I tried not to point them out. I didn’t have to-they got it. Some people teared up. I think I did too, when I showed the videos and remembered the people that I have lost over the course of this wonderful journey. So I share it here again for the benefit of those who maybe would like to see it again, or might like to use it in their own classrooms.

It is the story of my main character, the “liberator” Carrol “Red” Walsh, who passed three years ago this month, and Steve Barry, the 20 year old survivor who graphically describes his Holocaust experience, his day of liberation, and searching for so many years and finally finding his liberators, due to my teacher project. I forgot to tell my attentive audience that after Steve made it to the USA, he was drafted and served as a US Army Ranger in Korea- and that he called himself the “Happiest Korean Conflict Draftee”. Or that after he passed, his daughters boxed up his library of Holocaust-related books, and sent them to me. But I did tell them that forevermore, his words will remain inscribed in granite at the Donors’ Wall of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum- “It’s not for my sake that people should remember the Holocaust, it is FOR THE SAKE OF HUMANITY”.

Steve's name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

Steve’s name on the wall of donors, USHMM, unveiled April 29, 2014.

When I was finished, there was no real time for a Q and A session left-but people streamed over to me, taking my hand in many instances, and thanked me for something really simple-inspiration. And that is what meant the most, that these people were TEACHERS, like me. I drove the next the five hours on a cloud, just thinking about the day.

We have so much power to change the world, so much responsibility. Especially those of us who take on these topics. We get so caught up in the day to day milieu- we don’t see the forest. Today, thanks to the program and its organizers and speakers, we all at least caught a glimpse of it. The chief architect and MC, Colleen Tambuscio, radiated the collaborative enthusiasm that really carried the day and tied everything, and everyone, together.

*So, the ripples continue, and the generations go forth. Somebody said it was like pebbles being tossed into the still water. This may sound strange, but I have become keenly aware of the cosmic element-

We have the power to trip the wires of the cosmos.

 

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the last generation

My 93 year old friend Alvin Peachman came into school on Friday. He was once a teacher at this same high school, and I was once his history student. Now he is in my first book, and it was one white haired old man interviewing another, before a polite and rapt audience of tenth and twelfth graders in my classroom. My friend Liza from the New York State United Teachers, who did a nice story on us for Veterans Day, also came up.

 

alvin 3

Alvin even brought in a fragment of the kamikaze plane that tried to do him in when it crashed into his ship, killing scores of his shipmates. As a radioman he would have been a target on the bridge of the ship, supporting the invasion of Okinawa, but he was not near that part of the ship when the suicide pilot struck that day.

Before the interview session began, I asked for a show of hands of the number of kids who knew of a World War II veteran, like Alvin, who was still alive. Two kids volunteered. Nearly thirty years ago, it was two hands in the air for every kid. And that is how this whole project got started.

Alvin was from a generation that knew firsthand of the Civil War veterans, and his father and his uncles were all veterans of the Western Front in World War I. He had a good day with the kids, and made them laugh on several occasions. But it got me to thinking. This is the last generation of kids to ever hear firsthand the stories of the most cataclysmic events in the history of the world, World War II and the Holocaust.

The students came up to Alvin after the lesson, some seeking his autograph, others just wanting to shake his hand and hang out a while longer with him. I think it made his day. I know it made theirs and it is not something they will soon forget- that they actually met a genuine World War II survivor and now have that tangible link to the past.

I hope it is not the last time, but they are certainly the last generation.

the last generation 4

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