Five Holocaust survivors came to Dominion High School in Sterling, Virginia, on April 3 to talk to students as part of the “Adopt-a-Survivor” program. This is the program’s second year coming to Dominion.
“Students meet with different survivors, and they hear their story, they get to know them on a personal level, and then they pledge to adopt their story and to continue to tell it, even when the survivors aren’t around anymore,” said English teacher Nicole Korsen.
“We’re the last generation that is going to have [the] opportunity to speak to a survivor, [and] we need to continue to tell the stories of people who have been through it,” said Jordan Gortowski, the co-president of the Jewish Student Union (JSU). The JSU started the program at Dominion and partnered with other cultural clubs at the school such as the Muslim Student Association, Global Ambassadors, French Club, and German Club.
“I think that we need to really keep an eye on that and learn how to work together and embrace what makes us different, instead of letting it tear us apart,” said Korsen.
John Grausz, Margit Meissner, Klara Sever, and Jacques Wagschal spoke to individual breakout groups of 25 students each, while the keynote speaker, Irving Roth, addressed everyone later that evening. Before the event, students received a folder containing information about the survivor they would be meeting with, and students were also asked to come with a least one question.
The Tale of Jacques Wagschal
Wagschal, who is also Korsen’s father, spent his early years before World War II in Antwerp, Belgium. He and his siblings were put into an orphanage when their parents were taken away to the camps. Nazis would periodically come into the orphanage to take children in order to fill their 1,000-person quota of people to transfer to camps.
At the time that this all started, Wagschal was only 4 years old. At one point, he spent time living in the woods, in constant fear and surviving on berries for sustenance. “Fear is one of the strongest weapons,” he recalled.
He said the hardest part of living through the Holocaust was the starvation. He talked about how dehumanizing hunger is and how it made him feel like a nobody, like he was just going to fall down and die. He also shared the aftereffects of the starvation he experienced, and that he had to learn how to eat again.
By the time the camps were liberated, Wagschal was 7 years old. Luckily, his whole family survived and they were reunited in the displaced persons (DP) camps.
Wagschal described the intense hatred and brutality of the Nazis. “To them, killing was nothing,” he said. He also shared the other horrific and dehumanizing acts Jews experienced; for instance, the Nazis would shave the heads of the Jewish people in the camps and use the hair to stuff mattresses.
Students had the opportunity to ask questions of Wagschal and the other speakers. “We asked that they talk to their survivor, you know, and get to know them on a personal level so that they see that there’s so much more about them,” said Korsen.
Wagschal emphasized the importance of promoting love over hate in every situation, and even the importance of forgiveness for these atrocities. “Forgive, but don’t forget,” he said. After the survivors finished sharing their stories and answering the students’ questions, each participant was asked to sign an online statement committing to share the stories of the survivors.
Katie Feldman, the secretary of JSU, shared what she hoped students would take away from the experience: “I hope they learn the value of learning from past mistakes in history and how they can help the future not make the same mistakes today, because anti-Semitism is also coming back into government and politics and we need to take action before it becomes out of hand.”
The “Adopt-a-Survivor” program also had the goal of highlighting other possible global issues to make sure that something similar to the Holocaust never happens again. “The Holocaust is often used as a springboard to talk about human rights violations because it was unprecedented [and] never [had] happened before,” said Korsen. “I think it’s more about us being aware of what can happen, the consequences of unchecked hatred and racism.”
This content is adapted from an April 4 article published by the Dominion High School Press and is published here with permission.
By Morgan Fischer
Morgan Fischer is editor in chief of the DHS Press.