Zygie Allweiss was only 12 years old when the Holocaust began, but he vividly remembers breaking stones everyday at a labor camp in Poland and seeing his uncle and two aunts shot in the back of their heads by German soldiers.
Allweiss was one of more than 40 Holocaust survivors who came to tell their personal accounts at the 4th annual Conference on the Holocaust at the University of Michigan Hillel yesterday.
Organized by the Children of the Holocaust Survivors Association of Michigan and the University’s Hillel, the conference had 250 guests, who were assigned to sit at tables where the survivors individually shared their experiences during World War II. After the conference, students were asked to sign a pledge to tell the survivor’s story in 2045 — the 100th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
LSA junior Haley Volk, a co-chair of the event, said she decided to get involved with Holocaust commemoration because her grandparents were survivors. In high school, she worked with her grandmother to record and her grandparents’ experiences.
“When my grandfather passed away, we realized that nobody had ever recorded his story,” she said.
Volk said she thinks it’s important for students to hear the stories firsthand from a survivor instead of simply learning the facts about the Holocaust.
“It’s one thing to read it in a textbook, but it’s another thing to hear it firsthand and to hear it from the person who actually experienced it,” Volk said. “While we have the opportunity, while the survivors are still alive, we should definitely take advantage of that.”
Another survivor who spoke to a table of students at yesterday’s event, Gerry Kraus, was 6 years old when the war began. Born in Berlin, Kraus spent the duration of the war hiding from Nazis. Initially, he stayed with relatives living near Berlin but had to leave after a Nazi SS officer moved in with them. He spent the remainder of the war living in various bombed out buildings, he told the group.
“By my wits and some good fortune I managed to survive living in and around Berlin,” he said.
He said even after the conclusion of the war, he struggled with reliving the past and had difficulty moving on.
“I have been torn between wanting to go on with life and leaving the past behind me and feeling an obligation to those that survived,” he told the table of attendees.
Mark Webber told the students at his table the story of how he escaped to Russia to avoid the war. He recounted dealing with the remnants of anti-Semitism in Poland, which led to the murder of his parents a year after the close of WWII.
LSA freshman Natasha Nanus said the survivor she spoke with emphasized the importance of valuing your life and others’ lives.
“Our survivor stressed that we are all individuals and that we have to take our lives into our own hands,” Nanus said. “We have to make a promise to ourselves not to hurt any other human being.”