RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The stories of Holocaust survivors are terrifying and powerful, but many people haven’t heard them.
According to a 2020 survey, 57 percent of North Carolina millennials reported they did not know six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. 39 percent reported they did not know what Auschwitz was.
There’s a renewed push to teach middle and high schoolers in North Carolina about the Holocaust beginning in October.
It’s a mission to “never forget.”
The bright blue numbers on Simon Lewenberg’s left arm are now fading.
“142436,” he rattled off without hesitation.
Lewenberg’s identification number, tattooed into his skin at Auschwitz is burned into his brain.
Now at 100 years old and living in Apex, he still remembers being a teenager in Lodz, Poland.
It was never easy for him and his family.
“The Poles never liked the Jews. They were always hateful of the Jews. When there was a chance, they would beat them up if they wandered around in their neighborhood,” Lewenberg recalled.
Things got worse when the German army invaded Poland in 1939.
“When the Nazis came, the Polish people said ‘Juden, Juden.’ They pointed out, to the Nazis, the Jewish people,” Lewenberg said. “The Jewish people had to wear a Star of David. Everyone had to put it on their Jacket, so they knew who the Jews were.”
Lewenberg, his parents, and two brothers were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto, where sickness and death quickly spread from family to family.
There was not enough food, and the threat of being sent away to slave labor or death camps loomed above them.
“We went there, and we were escorted by the SS men, with bayonets and rifles,” he said.
For the next five years, Lewenberg went from camp to camp, enduring the unimaginable.
“We lined up and the SS man was directing us to a line, which way to go,” he explained. “To the left or to the right.”
Right, to die. Left, another chance to live.
Lewenberg relives the disturbing moments at each place, again and again.
“We stood naked in the snow. I was completely naked, barefooted in the snow. [We went] from one barrack to another. We went into a shower room, and we held hands. We said, ‘they’re going to gas us,'” he recalled. “Instead, they opened up the showers, and nice warm water came out.”
It’s these stories Karen Klaich needs the next generation to hear.
“One out of three students do not know about the Holocaust. They cannot tell you the name of a concentration camp. They don’t know any facts about what anti-Semitism is and even how to explain that,” she said.
The program coordinator for the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust has been working with her team and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to create a brand-new curriculum for middle and high school students.
The Gizella Abramson Holocaust Education Act passed in 2021, requiring North Carolina public schools to teach the Holocaust.
Before, it wasn’t mandated. It was up to each school district, and teacher, to educate their students on the difficult subject.
“Some of the simulation activities we’ve heard about, are you get the dimensions of a cattle car, you take that down and you stand your students there and you tell them, ‘well, this is this is an activity that’s going to show you what it was like to ride on a train to Auschwitz,'” explained Klaich. “Well, no, it doesn’t simulate that. You’re not recreating those conditions. And again, why would you want to?”
Klaich’s goal is to be thoughtful and thorough.
Starting in sixth grade, students will learn about hate. They will have books to read and videos to watch with their Social Studies and English teachers.
“The thing is to really pull in that survivor testimony because that’s your proof that this is what happened,” said Klaich. “These images, these people talking, these are the ones that we have to listen to.”
Soon, some students will listen to Renée Fink’s story.
“I am a hidden child. That’s the official description of me,” she said.
The Chapel Hill Holocaust survivor’s testimony is featured in the new curriculum.
At four years old, Fink’s parents sent her away in hopes of saving her life.
“The day they said goodbye to me and put me on a bicycle…they knew. But I didn’t know that I would never see them again,” she said.
She hid with a Dutch family and took on a new name.
“Renate Gabriele Lasar. Then I became Rita van den Brink,” she said.
Fink also took on a new religion.
“I had my own rosary and I prayed, and I said Hail Mary’s. And we went to church every Sunday,” she added.
Fink remembers a mostly happy childhood with her adoptive parents and siblings, punctuated by moments of fear.
“There were Germans all around making house searches and looking for Jews,” she recalled. “If the Germans were coming and we had a little advance notice, they threw me in a bed upstairs and covered me with blankets and covered my hair, which was very important because I was dark. I didn’t look like a little Dutch girl. And when the Germans came to the door of the bedroom, they would say [Tuberculosis], which frightened the Germans and made them run.”
It wasn’t until after the war when she Fink was older, that she learned about her family’s fate at Auschwitz.
“They were all murdered. And we say murdered. We, the survivors, don’t like to use the other words, because that’s what it is,” said Fink. “These people were cut down just for being Jewish.”
In March, the Anti-Defamation League released a report, showing a 30 percent increase of anti-Semitic incidents in North Carolina from 2021 to 2022.
“I’m deeply concerned,” said Fink.
Some of those incidents include the anti-Semitic flyers that have made their way through different Wake County neighborhoods.
“It’s really very sad that I should, you know, become prominent because of something so horrific,” said Fink. “Through education and knowing how events come about, you can better see the warning signs. I can see warning signs, things that create fear and may only because I lived through this part of history, the worst.”
It’s now a mission to prevent hate that begins in the classroom.
“I think we have to find a way to talk about how we get along with people that we don’t know or that we don’t like or that, you know, are just so different from us,” said Klaich.
It’s a mission to ensure history does not repeat itself.
“For the past, it can come back in the future. That is why we will stay on guard, and let people know how the Jewish people suffered, and how they were killed, for no reason at all,” said Lewenberg. “If it happened to me, it might happen to you in the future.”
“The slog is always, so we never forget and never again,” said Fink. “I would like those words in the future to have some meaning because up until now, they’ve just been words.”
The new curriculum goes into effect in October. There will also be a Holocaust-focused elective course offered to high schoolers next fall.