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Never forget

With teacher’s lead, L-EHS students study Holocaust

Posted: December 4, 2017 4:02 p.m.
Updated: December 5, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Cousins Henry Miller and Karl Goldberg (fourth row, far left and second from left) join Lugoff-Elgin High School English teacher Melissa Rabon (third row, far right, in scarf) and her students in pledging to “Never Forget” the horror of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II on Nov. 29. In addition to studying about the Holocaust and other genocides and examples of persecution, they signed a banner -- being held up by students in the center -- with Spanish-born American author George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Ten-year-old Melissa Wyatt went on vacation with her family while they were stationed in Germany. One of the stops changed the little girl’s life: Dachau.

Located in Upper Bavaria in southern Germany, Dachau was the first concentration camp opened by the Nazis. The Nazis held more than 188,000 people at Dachau, mostly Jews. Nearly 32,000 died there.

While it took more than 20 years, that experience led Melissa Wyatt Rabon, an English teacher at Lugoff-Elgin High School (L-EHS), to put together a unique learning experience on Nov. 29 focused not only on the Holocaust of World War II, but acts of persecution and genocide throughout history around the world.

“That visit had a lasting impact on me,” Rabon said. “There were some survivors there, at the museum, and they forever changed my perspective on humanity.”

Through her teens and into college, Rabon studied the Holocaust. Describing herself as a “military brat,” she said her father accepted an assignment at Fort Jackson in 1997. Rabon graduated from L-EHS in 2001. She studied business and English at the University of South Carolina and worked in the business world for a number of years.

In 2010, Rabon became a teacher, returning to the school from which she graduated to teach English; her classes focus on American and World history. Some of the literature her students study ties in with the events of World War II. Rabon had found a way to bring her passion for the truth about the Holocaust to the classroom.

“But I didn’t feel like I did it justice,” she said.

A friend told her about a conference at Columbia College sponsored by the Columbia Holocaust Education Commission they had attended in 2016 focusing on how to teach the Holocaust to students in any grade.

“I learned how to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world and how to get students to apply the concepts to their lives,” Rabon said.

One of the resources the conference provided was a set of links to videos taken from Seared Souls: South Carolina Voices of the Holocaust, hosted on KnowItAll.org, by S.C. Educational Television (SCETV). Polish sisters Bluma Goldberg and Cela Miller were two of the women featured in the 10-part documentary from the early 1990s. They were two of six children in a small Polish town and the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.

Rabon invited their sons, cousins Karl Goldberg and Henry Miller, to speak to her English students during a special assembly on Nov. 29 in the L-EHS auditorium. The presentation started with a short introduction to the Seared Souls documentary followed by clips of Bluma and Cela’s interviews.

The documentary related how, in the 1930s, Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler took an old Russian myth about Jews trying to take over the world and convinced the German people that Jews could be blamed for all the country’s post-World War I problems.

Hitler’s persecution, Rabon told the students, didn’t touch just people who considered themselves Jewish, but anyone the Nazi’s claimed had even a drop of Jewish blood.

While most Jews deem themselves Jewish based on maternal descent, where the mother must be Jewish regardless of the father’s parentage, Nazis deemed anyone shown with Jewish ancestry -- mother, father, grandparents -- as Jewish. Rabon pointed out that a student in her class who does not consider himself Jewish has grandparents who are. The Nazis would have considered him Jewish, she said, and therefore, would have rounded him up.

Following the video introduction, Goldberg, who said his mother, Bluma, is still alive at 91, read her account of her and her sister’s survival of the Holocaust. During one part of the account, it was Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, sometime after the Nazis had taken over their village in Poland.

In her SCETV interview, Bluma Goldberg related what happened next:

“My mother made my sister and I -- she gave us a little bit of money -- and she told us just to leave and to go in the woods to hide. My sister is four years older than I. First, we didn’t want to go, because whatever’s going to happen to them, we felt we all go together…. My parents made us leave. Later, I found out that my father and my brother joined the underground and my older sister had a baby at the time and my three younger sisters went with my mother to the crematoriums.”

In the woods, the sisters met a cousin and an uncle, with whom they stayed, building a shed in which they hid for two months. Wary of a newcomer who asked to stay with them, they ran away to a nearby town where another uncle lived -- allowed to live by the Germans who made him work for them -- who hid them under two-by-fours. Five days later, the Schutzstaffel -- the SS -- came looking for the sisters following a tip. They came again two days later.

Deciding it was no longer safe, Bluma and Cela left again, but the Nazis had passed a new law: if you were Jewish between ages 15 and 25, you had to report to a certain place to be taken to labor camps. Bluma, not quite 15, lied about her age so that she and Cela would be accepted to a camp together. They had given themselves up in the hope of survival. Their first jobs were in an ammunition factory. They spent two years there.

Karl Goldberg picked up the story from there.

He said if you were too weak -- too anything -- you would be shot or sent to the death camps.

“They worked 12-hour shifts, and the only solace they had is that they might die together,” Goldberg said.

They survived in that first camp for three years, only to be transferred to Bergen-Belsen, the same concentration camp where Holocaust diarist Anne Frank would die.

“She remembered all her possessions were taken and her hair shaved,” Goldberg said of his mother.

The Nazis moved the sisters again, to another airplane factory where they had to paint the Nazi logos on airplanes. Finally, they were moved to Dachau -- the very camp Rabon would visit as a 10-year-old.

There, Cela would contract typhoid fever. Bluma, who was weak and starved herself, did what she had to do in order to keep her sister alive.

“Then, they began hearing explosions and soldiers,” Goldberg said.

Americans were liberating the camp.

“They were taken to a hospital and it was only then that they cried. They learned they were the only survivors of their family,” Goldberg said.

Bluma and Cela were then sent to a displaced persons camp. There, they met their husbands, best friends who had survived Auschwitz, among the worst of the Nazi camps.

“They originally thought they would go to Israel,” Goldberg said, “but they couldn’t find a sponsor.”

Instead, the newly married couples received assistance from a synagogue in the Midlands, and they immigrated three months apart to Columbia in 1949.

Henry Miller picked up his cousin’s story from there, while adding further insight into his mother and Aunt Bluma’s stories, as well as that of their fathers.

“They had no family here. They started cold, but they were ready to start a new life. Our parents had lost all or virtually all of their families,” Miller said, adding that his and Karl’s parents did not speak English and were penniless when they arrived.

He pointed out to the students that out of the 6 million Jews the Nazis killed, 1.5 million were children. Despite the horror their parents went through, Miller said he believes mankind does learn from its mistakes, but slowly. He noted that the Civil War ended in 1865, but that it wasn’t until 1965 that the U.S. passed the Civil Right Act.

“It does take place,” Miller said of change. “It’s a progression and we have to hope we’re not part of why it’s slow and do what we can to speed things up. We’re all human; we’re not perfect, and if we miss opportunities to stand up for someone, then we make sure we don’t miss it the next time.”

Rabon asked him to talk about his father, David.

“He was from Warsaw. He was 19 in 1939 when the war came. His being 19, it’s why he survived. He was young and very strong. He would go through the sewers below Warsaw to get food and supplies. Those who survived were mostly in their teens and early 20s,” Miller said.

He said his father was eventually captured and sent to numerous camps, including Auschwitz where, he said, more than 1 million were gassed to death. David Miller and Karl’s father met while working in a mine as slave laborers.

“Near the end of the war, they were on the death marches, being forced to march between the camps,” Miller said.

They ended up at Buchenwald and were liberated by Russian troops.

The cousins said their parents didn’t talk much about the war, despite Bluma and Cela’s participation in the Seared Souls documentary.

“As I got older, they would tell us more. They wouldn’t volunteer things, but they would tell you if you asked,” Goldberg said of his parents.

“No matter how much they did tell, we couldn’t understand how ridiculously terrible it was,” Miller added. “My father had a stroke at 70, so I never really got a chance to get the full story.”

One of Rabon’s students asked the men if they ever felt discriminated against for being Jewish.

“No one ever walked up to me and said anything, but I always felt there were undertones -- things on the news,” Goldberg said. “I went to Columbia schools. I didn’t have a ton of friends and I sometimes felt weird being Jewish.”

Miller agreed.

“We had pretty easy lives,” he said. “I don’t feel like I was ever really discriminated against. When our parents came here … they struggled, but what they came from was beyond imagination. But they had food, a roof over their heads; no one was trying to kill them and no disease. When they talked about America, they would say, ‘This is great!’”

Goldberg said his parents didn’t think something like the Holocaust could happen again.

“Our country is amazing. Sure it has problems and politics are crazy right now, but I think my parents would want you to know you live in an amazing place where you can do what you want to do. America has been good to us and our family,” he said.

Miller was a little more circumspect.

“The Holocaust was a result of prejudice, racism and extreme hatred that can progress to a level that is unimaginable. It can happen again, but I believe it won’t,” he said. “All of us can try to be better individuals so (those things) occur less frequently and are more limited so the dark history of the world doesn’t repeat itself.”

Following Goldberg and Miller’s presentation, Rabon had her students move to L-EHS’ media center where a number of their classmates had already set up “stations” -- displays, some with dioramas -- that explained what they had studied. These stations were not just about the Holocaust. In fact, very few of them dealt with the Holocaust at all. Stations covered genocides in places like Bosnia, persecutions or lack of freedoms in North Korea, U.S. slavery, acts committed as part of Islamaphobia or homophobia and even the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693.

Rabon said she wanted her students to gain a true understanding of the scope of such atrocities.

“This is what happens whenever you classify yourself as better than others,” Rabon said, “but what is our universe of obligation to mankind? I may see things differently from you, but you’re still human and we all deserve to treat each other kindly.”

So, as much as Rabon wanted her students to learn about the darkness that can be perpetrated, she also wanted them to know that the actions of some are not equal to the actions of all.

To that end, she had her students sign a banner reading “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We pledge to be ‘upstanders’ and to #NeverForget.”

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