Plainfield High hosts Holocaust Awareness Day

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Plainfield - posted Tue., May. 28, 2013
Henny Simon and Constance Sattler spoke to the students about their very different experiences. Photos by D. Coffey.
Henny Simon and Constance Sattler spoke to the students about their very different experiences. Photos by D. Coffey.

Plainfield High School students had a unique opportunity on May 24 to hear World War II stories from five different perspectives. The speakers included two Jewish women, a Polish woman, an American soldier and the son of two Jewish survivors who met and married in a displaced persons camp after the war. Their stories underscored the ways in which WWII destroyed the fabric of so many lives.

Constance Sattler and her sister escaped to Great Britain. The other two women suffered for years in concentration camps. Norman Berman told the story of how his parents started over again in Connecticut. And Benjamin Cooper talked about his part in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp as a U.S. serviceman.

Plainfield students Jordan Beauregard, Tanya Webster and Alexandra Thomas organized the event with the help of social studies teacher Lisa Bastien and math teacher Ashley Smith. It was Beauregard who came up with the idea of a Holocaust Awareness Day in 2011 after a school trip to Philadelphia. It was the first time he had heard Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences and it was all he could think about for days after the trip. “I was in awe,” he said. “They all spoke about the need to spread the stories from one generation to another.”

Sattler grew up in Germany, but her Jewish parents did not bring her up in the faith. “I wasn't a Jew in the strict sense,” she said, “but by Hitler's standards I was.” That designation forced the family to change schools. It cost her father his job and Sattler her small circle of friends. She and her sister found themselves in Great Britain through the efforts of the rescue mission known as Kindertransport. The mission operated for nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII. It is credited with saving the lives of 10,000 predominantly Jewish children.

Sattler's mother convinced the girls the trip would be a wonderful adventure. “We were so happy just exploring everything,” Sattler said. Many of her memories remain clear and happy about those years. She recounted bluebell woods, a copse of peach trees, white linen and servants. It was only after the war when she was reunited with her parents that she came to appreciate the depth of suffering. “When we saw our parents, they were so small,” she said. “I'm exceedingly grateful,” she said of the English people who took her into their home. “My life has been enriched by them.”

Miss Irene's story couldn't have been more different. She talked about the three years she spent in a child labor camp. Things she witnessed as a child continue to haunt her: a German soldier killing an infant to quiet its cries, the smell of burning flesh as Nazis threw gasoline on a group of Jews and set them ablaze, the screams of concentration camp prisoners as their tormentors pulled gold teeth from their mouths before sending them to the gas chamber.

She moved from one anecdote to another. “I remember,” she'd say and then recount one of a number of memories seared into her mind from that time. She remembered 37 people hiding in a root cellar in her family's home, the curfews imposed, planes flying low across the countryside on bombing missions, bodies thrown into huge burial holes. “We buried animals better than they buried those people,” she told the audience.

She and her family took in a Jewish girl during those years and made her one of their own. That young girl survived, and eventually made her way to the U.S. “Thank God we saved one,” Irene said. “I have four Jewish nephews that I'm so proud of.” She wiped her eyes. Her voice choked. “You don't know how lucky you are to be born in America,” she told the students.

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