January 14, 2015 is a day I hope my students will never forget. We were so privileged to have Max Michelson, a survivor of the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and several satellite camps of Buchenwald. For over an hour my ordinarily fidgety and chatty group of 95 twelve and thirteen year olds sat on the floor and listened to Max share his incredible and heart-wrenching story. They did not move. Not a single whisper or fidget was witnessed. Like me, my students were in awe.
Perhaps it is amplified because I lost my grandmother this past summer, but I have such an admiration and deep respect for the elderly. Max arrived to our school on this bitterly cold morning, driving himself in his car, and walking into the building in his puffy green jacket. When asked if he wanted to take the elevator or the stairs, his friend that came along with him suggested that he should probably choose the elevator. He looked at me and said, “If I keep taking the elevator, I won’t make it to 92.” It was indicative of the attitude that has allowed a man that has been through pure hell, to be driving his own car and willing to take the stairs at the age of 90.
Teaching the Holocaust to 12 year olds is a challenging task. Finding that “right” balance between teaching the reality and shielding young kids from horrific images, is a struggle. Max’s presentation was more powerful than I could have imagined. In just a little over an hour Max articulated more to my students than any other book or movie could have. He shared how swiftly his parents were stolen from him, and the moment, upon seeing an infant’s dead body in the forest, he realized the Nazi agenda. He did this without invoking fear, but by sharing his story in a candid and forthright fashion that my students could process.
One of the questions that is asked repeatedly each time that I teach the Holocaust to students is when imprisoned in ghettos, how much did Jews know of their eventual fate? Max described his own process of realization of what was to come. He shared the story of his father insisting on bringing his mother’s clothes after she “disappeared” and they were forced to move into the ghetto, and then his father’s slow acceptance that she would not return and therefore not bringing her warm clothes when they moved to a different area of the ghetto. Listening, I could feel the hope evaporate from Max’s father. I have heard and read countless testimony that have similar progression, but hearing it directly from Max broke my heart all over again.
Reflecting on the experience of hearing Max’s testimony, throughout his testimony I found myself thinking that hearing Max speak was such a privilege. He shared how his survival was not due to his will, but rather being lucky stating, “Survival was a matter of luck, chance and circumstance.” He also beautifully shared with the students how important respect is. “We must respect life, all life and the dignity of every person. You might not like them, but you must respect them…shared humanity must be respected and considered.” I only hope that my students were able to absorb even a fraction of this wisdom from Max.
Hearing the story directly from a man who survived the horror…I do wonder if the students recognize the privilege. I hope that one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, my students will recognize the power of the memories Max shared with us, and how essential it is that we continue to share Max’s story long after he is no longer able.