Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 | 9:42 a.m.
Las Vegas resident Lydia Lebovic, 84, never got to say goodbye to her mother and younger sister who were pulled away from her at Auschwitz and taken to a gas chamber to be executed.
“That was the last time I saw them,” said Lebovic, recalling her six weeks of 1944 she spent in the infamous Nazi concentration camp. “They were selected for death and I was selected for labor.”
Lebovic was 16 years old at the time, not much older than the middle school students she shared her story with Wednesday night.
“I am a Holocaust survivor,” she told them.
Lebovic was one of six survivors sharing stories for the event titled “Hidden Life: Lessons from the Holocaust” at Northwest Career and Technical Academy.
The survivors included Las Vegas residents Lebovic, Alexander Kuechel, Meta Duran, Stephen Nasser and Ben Lesser.
Nearly 250 students from 35 schools around the valley gathered at the magnet school to listen and learn.
Lebovic took a group of about 30 Anthony Saville Middle School students back to a time when Jewish people were captured by German soldiers during World War II and taken to concentration campus. There the Jews were either slaughtered or forced to perform hard labor under inhuman conditions.
“People couldn’t work because they were so skinny, they were skeletons,” she said.
Lebovic was taken to two other concentration camps during the Holocaust.
“From my family there were three survivors,” said Lebovic, who was reunited with her older sister and brother toward the end of World War II. Her sister weighed 75 pounds.
On April 15, 1945, the British Army liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Lebovic was being detained.
Once the war ended, Lebovic was opposed to talking about the Holocaust.
“For years I was in terrible denial,” she said.
Her family eventually encouraged her to open up about her experiences.
“Hatred is out there, even today, and because it’s happening there could be another Holocaust,” she said. “My main reason is to ask you, one by one, to help Holocaust survivors to maintain the truth.”
Once local survivors had shared their stories, students were broken up into groups and asked to talk about what they had learned.
Lebovic’s refusal to harbor hate resonated with 13-year-old Rozzana Calangi.
“I’ve been trying to change my perspective and how I treat other people,” said the middle school student.
Other students, like seventh-grader Koren Saida, appreciated having the opportunity to ask questions and learn from an individual who lived during the time period.
“I think it was really nice to hear her story instead of reading it out of a text book,” he said.
Prior to the event students were taught in history and social studies classes about the Holocaust and World War II.
“Holocaust education is an important part of our curriculum,” said Brian Boothe, Clark County School District project facilitator for K-12 social studies.
“I think it’s very good, very powerful and very important for youngsters of this age to hear it from a first-person perspective,” said Carolyn Edwards, School Board member.
The program is coordinated by the Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust and has put survivors in front of students for the past 15 years.
“I think for many survivors, they feel this is helpful and they want to tell their story,” said Myra Berkovits, education specialist for the Governor’s Advisory Council.
Getting students to interact with survivors helps break down culture barriers, Boothe said. “The big thing is to teach tolerance and understanding of other cultures.”
As part of the program a visiting speaker is invited. Joining the roster of speakers this year was survivor Myra Genn, 73, who traveled from her home in New Jersey to be the keynote speaker.
Genn’s sister, brother, two young cousins and her uncle were all killed during the Holocaust.
When Genn was about 5 years old, she lived with her mother and aunt in the attic of a Polish shoemaker who was hiding them from the Nazis during World War II.
“We were hidden in their attic for over a year,” she said. “We survived miraculously.”
Genn, like Lebovic, was reluctant to speak of the Holocaust once the war ended.
“It was too painful,” she said.
In 1991, Genn attended an international conference of Hidden Children that inspired her to speak up about her experience.
“I think it’s very, very important in today’s world, where there are so many atrocities happening,” Genn said.
In late 2009, at teacher at Northwest Career and Technical Academy was at the center of a controversy after allegedly telling her students the Nazis lacked the technology during World War II to kill 6 million Jews. Holocaust survivors have returned to the school each year since to share their stories.
Those interested in learning more about the Holocaust can visit the Sperling Mack Kronberg Holocaust Resource Center at 4794 S. Eastern Ave.; appointments can be made by calling 433-0005.