Muhlenberg Students Learn the Importance of Remembering the Holocaust

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On Thursday, Muhlenberg students had the unique opportunity to hear from a Holocaust survivor as a part of Jenna Roth ’18’s leadership project through the Nachshon Project. Through this project, Roth was able to invite Agi Geva, a survivor of the Holocaust, to speak to a large group of Muhlenberg students.

The Nachshon Project is a Jewish leadership fellowship that enables college students to study abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Once students return from their semester abroad in Israel, they receive a budget from The Nachshon Project to complete a leadership project.

The theme of the event was “Don’t Forget to Remember,” and it certainly will be difficult for Geva’s story to be forgotten. In fact, there were so many students at the event that the room was expanded to accommodate everyone who attended. The event included Geva’s discussion of her story, an opportunity for the students attending to ask questions, and a time set for the students to reflect with each other about Geva’s story.

Not surprisingly, Geva’s story resonated with themes of fear and confusion, but also those of hope and perseverance.  Her story went from unimaginable to even worse, but Geva’s mother’s quick thinking in the concentration camps helped to her family alive through all of their horrific ordeals.

Geva grew up in a town northeast of Budapest, Hungary. Her life was completely changed on Mar. 19, 1944, when Germany officially occupied Hungary. She and her mother, father and sister were forced to wear the infamous yellow stars to signify that they were Jewish. The family was then taken from a boarding house to the ghettos, where they were forced to live in a cramped space with many other families. At the time, Geva was 14 and her sister was 13, so they “couldn’t even understand what was going to happen.”

Eventually, the Geva family was forced to ride in boxcars with conditions that were “impossible, not human at all” for three and a half days to get to the concentration camp they would later learn was Auschwitz. When they arrived, the men and women were separated, so Geva couldn’t even say goodbye to her father. In this situation, her mother realized that they had to stop addressing each other like they were family, and Geva and her sister pretended they were 18 and 19 years old, all so they wouldn’t get separated from each other. At the event, the audience could feel the relief Geva described when she explained how the women of her family got to stay together.

Geva went on to explain how in Auschwitz, she and the other Jewish people faced the “utmost humiliation” over just the course of just the first day at the camp. They had to give up all their luggage from home, which included everything they had, including family pictures and jewelry. This separation was devastating for Geva and her family, but it tragically grew as they were forced to undress completely, part with their clothes, and be showered with a disinfecting spray. They were almost taken to the gas chambers, but they ended up evading this tragic death. At the time, however, only Geva’s mother knew what the gas chambers really were.

Geva was temporarily relocated to another concentration camp, but eventually they were all sent back to Auschwitz. Geva is one of only 13 people in the Holocaust who was sent to Auschwitz twice and survived both times. Geva was spared from the gas chamber because she was able to speak German with the soldier running the selection.  Eventually, she, as well as her mother and sister, were sent to work at a factory in Germany. On Apr. 29, 1945, they found out that they were free.

One thing that was particularly fascinating about Geva’s story was her discussion about her life after the Holocaust.  She explained that she “thought [she] would never be free, that [she] would be a prisoner forever.” Upon a question from a student, Geva described how adjusting to life after liberation was actually rather difficult. Her mother was able to remarry and live a happy life with her second husband, but Geva did not stay in college because she faced anti-Semitism.

Throughout her story, Geva wanted to get the message across that the generation of the students in attendance would be the last generation to have survivors of the Holocaust to speak to them directly; as a result, she stressed the importance that they hear these stories.

Jenna Levin ’21 had an interesting perspective on the talk. “I have been to all of the concentration camps [Geva] mentioned, so it was interesting to be able to visualize the events of her story.”

Deena Danishefsky ’21 shared that she has a Holocaust survivor in her family, went to a Jewish day school, and is accustomed to hearing stories like Geva’s. “But I don’t want to be used to it. I want to take this experience and be more proactive.” And Emma Schwartz ’21 noted that “there was a picture of Auschwitz, and it’s so sad to think the buildings would survive longer than the people.”

These ideas reflect the atmosphere of the room after hearing Geva’s story: everyone was genuinely fascinated by, and sympathetic to, the story Geva told. This idea was coupled with Roth’s closing statement about National Holocaust Remembrance Day: “The importance of remembering is not confined within just one day.”

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