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Using Lessons from the Holocaust to Teach Empathy

March 8, 2012

When teaching assistant Robin Cruz was growing up, she remembers the stories a dear family member used to tell her. She remembers the sadness and pain of those stories as if they were her own. That is how Ms. Cruz first identified with the devastation she would come to know as the Holocaust.Holocaust story

Years later while working at the Robert J. Kaiser Middle School, a passing comment from an indifferent colleague would touch that memory and spur Ms. Cruz to action. She knew the only way to enlighten people to the reality and brutality of the Holocaust was to find someone who had lived through it to tell his story. That is how she met Werner Reich.

Helping others understand

“The sheer ignorance of this person’s comment is what drove me,” said Ms. Cruz, who has worked at the RJK Middle School for the past seven years. “It is my passion to make others understand the depths of hell the Jewish people suffered. The Holocaust horrors have no boundaries of brutality. You have to see it and hear it for yourself. The fact that the Nazis tried to wipe out a race of people who contributed so much to society is unimaginable.”

Ms. Cruz knew how she was affected after seeing the starving faces of the thousands of little children separated from their families, waiting to be shot or sent to the gas chamber. She remembered the heartbreak from the childhood stories she had been told. She knew that sharing the truth and knowledge about these monstrous acts with her students and colleagues would be the only chance she had to help them understand the magnitude of the damage caused by the Holocaust. Holocaust story

Memories of a Jewish boy

“What kind of person will you be?” asked the unassuming man with the kind eyes and gentle smile - his calm, steady voice never revealing the horror and pain of his past. It seemed unlikely that these young minds sitting in the large auditorium would relate to what this man had lived through more than sixty years ago. Yet, there was intensity in the underlying emotion that filled the room. As his presentation began and the brutal images depicting the devastation of the Holocaust flashed onto the large white screen, a stark silence came over the crowd.

His name is Werner Reich – a Holocaust survivor – now in his eighth decade he is sharing his story with the youngsters of today in the hope that he can touch their lives and change the course of history – one child at a time. This leg of his life’s journey began with the birth of his grandson. That moment sparked in him a desire to share his first-hand experiences during the Holocaust with the younger generation. He created a photo display and presentation and began visiting schools.

He soon came to realize that his work was even more important than he had imagined when at one of his early presentations a young student asked if a concentration camp was similar to summer camp. Now 15 years later, Mr. Reich has shared his story with thousands – not propelled by hatred and revenge or the need for pity - but a retelling of an experience designed to empower the listener to believe that he or she can make a positive difference in the lives of others - right here, right now.Holocaust story

“The Holocaust was about more than just Jewish people,” said Mr. Reich, who is a retired industrial engineer. “You cannot live your life as a bystander. Someone who does nothing is just as bad as the person who is doing the bad thing.”

When good people do nothing

As he began to peel the layers of his life as a young boy in Germany and Yugoslavia, Mr. Reich’s story exemplified “what happens when good people do nothing.” This theme repeated over and over as he showed how history could have been changed if the “good” people had banded together to fight the Nazi “bullies.” He also showed examples of how good people did risk their own lives to save others and how one of those acts of bravery and kindness saved the life of his future wife, Eva. He then weaved this timeless tale back to modern day – to the school cafeteria or gym class – the new student on campus or the one who is somehow different. He made the audience realize how each of them could be that good person by standing up for what is right.

As he continued, Mr. Reich explained how the German secret police, aka the Gestapo, “beat the living daylights” out of him on more than one occasion just for being Jewish. He recounted some of the brutal images that were burned in his memory when he told of being torn from his own family by German soldiers and locked in a jail cell filled with millions of fleas. He spoke about being transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where he was starved, beaten and taunted by the prison guards and how he was one of a handful of “lucky” people not chosen to be killed. He quietly spoke of the last time he saw his mother before she was murdered by the Nazis.

Always remember, never forget

It is difficult for some people to understand why a Holocaust survivor would want to re-live the horrors of his experiences over and over again - looking into the eyes of the dying children - seeing the faces of the thousands of people as they were led onto the trains of death. For Mr. Reich, it is unfathomable to allow the devastation and injustices of the Holocaust to fade with time and distance. He knows that as new generations grow, the reality and the pain become less vivid. He knows that if people become complacent, it can and will happen again.

Every day the news is filled with stories about dictators and governments that are committing atrocities against their citizens. When we watch how people all over the world are fighting for freedom and their human rights, it helps us understand why we must remember. For knowledge is power and empowers us to change the future. It also makes us ask ourselves, in Mr. Reich’s words, “What kind of person am I?”Holocaust story

Teaching the children

To supplement Mr. Reich’s presentation, Robin Cruz facilitated a classroom lesson for Sarah Slinsky’s 6th, 7th and 8th grade special education class that included reading the book, “Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary,” by Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven. She then discussed the story chapter by chapter with her students as they explored the meaning and importance of each section. Students created Anne Frank booklets that included an analysis about how she must have felt while she was in hiding and what her parents had to do to stay strong. Many of the youngsters were touched by Anne Frank’s experiences and were inspired as they created projects that helped them feel closer to her and also allowed them to express their own pain of loss and trauma.

As part of the lesson, students printed the “Faces of Children from the Holocaust” forget-me-not cards. While researching the vast number of children who had been murdered, the students gained a true understanding of the atrocities, prejudice and brutality against humanity the Holocaust represents. The lesson included an explanation as to why it is important to talk about such a horrific time in history. Discussions also tied the Holocaust to events in the world today, including terrorism and the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.

For more information about the Holocaust, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum at Holocaust story

Photos: #1: RJK teaching assistant Robin Cruz with Holocaust survivor Werner Reich. Mr. Reich and his wife Eva, who is also a Holocaust survivor, live in Smithtown, Long Island. They travel all over New York State together giving free Holocaust presentations to students and training teachers how to teach about the Holocaust.

#2: RJK students Isaiah Madden and Alithea Bolden display their work.

#3: Teacher aide Anita Kientzler sits with eighth-grader Christopher Beatty during a classroom lesson.

#4: Eleven-year-old Diego Gonzalez picked Hannah Hajek as his Holocaust child. Hannah was sent to the gas chamber with her mother and grandmother when she was just four years old. “This assignment made me so sad,” said Diego. “I will remember it forever and try to keep the people who died alive in my heart. We need to be grateful for what we have now.”

#5: Seventh-grader Kirsten McCarthy was so deeply touched and awed by this lesson, she went home, independently researched information and images, and worked all weekend to create a visual timeline about Anne Frank, the Holocaust and the Nazis. Later in the week, she shared her finished work withRJK students her classmates.

#6: Werner and Eva Reich are flanked by Monticello High School students Lucas Smith and Anthony Lombardi.The two boys were deeply moved by the Holocaust presentation.

Resources and information about the Holocaust, Anne Frank and World War II

The following information is from

The Holocaust

"The Holocaust was the genocide (murder of an entire ethnic, national or religious group) of approximately six million European Jews during World War II, a program of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, throughout Nazi-occupied territory. Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two-thirds perished. In particular, more than one million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust, as were approximately two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men.

Some scholars maintain that the definition of the Holocaust should also include the Nazis' genocide of millions of people in other groups, including Romani, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Jehovah's Witnesses and other political and religious opponents, which occurred regardless of whether they were of German or non-German ethnic originClass (this included new born babies and infants).Using this definition, the total number of Holocaust victims is between 11 million and 17 million people.

The persecution and genocide were carried out in stages. Various legislation to remove the Jews from civil society - including the Nuremberg Laws - was enacted in Nazi Germany years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were used as slave labor until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where the Third Reich conquered new territory in Eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings. The Third Reich required Jews and Romani to be confined in overcrowded ghettos before being transported by freight train to extermination (concentration) camps where, if they survived the journey, the majority of them were systematically killed in gas chambers.

Every arm of Nazi Germany's bureaucracy was involved in the logistics that led to the genocides, turning the Third Reich into what one Holocaust scholarRJK class has called "a genocidal state." Opinions differ on how much the civilian population of Germany knew about the government conspiracy against the Jewish population. Most historians claim that the civilian population was unaware of the atrocities that were carried out, especially in the extermination camps, which were located outside of Germany in Nazi-occupied Europe. The historian Robert Gellately, however, claims that the government openly announced the conspiracy through the media, and that civilians were aware of its every aspect except for the use of gas chambers. Significant historical evidence points to the idea that the vast majority of Holocaust victims, prior to their deportation to concentration camps, were either unaware of the fate that awaited them, or were in disbelief; they honestly believed that they were to be resettled.

Anne Frank

Annelies Marie Frank (June 1929 – early March 1945) was one of the most renowned and most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Acknowledged for the quality of her writing, her diary has become one of the world's most widely read books, and has been the basis for several plays and films. Anne Frank

Born in Germany, Frank lost her citizenship in 1941 when Nazi Germany passed the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws.

She gained international fame posthumously (after her death) when her diary was published. It documents her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.

World War II

World War II, or the Second World War (often abbreviated as WWII or WW2), was a global conflict that was underway by 1939 and ended in 1945. It involved most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million military personnel mobilized. In a state of "total war," the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it is the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.

faces and stories of other Holocaust survivors

This information is provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum works with more than 90 survivors who donate thousands of hours of service annually to help translate archival documents and books, lead groups through the museum exhibits, and educate audiences across the country about the Holocaust and why it is still relevant today.

             Holocaust survivor               Holocaust survivor      


          Holocaust survivor            Holocaust survivor


         Holocaust survivor              Holocaust survivor