It’s not often that one gets over 450 teenagers to sit quietly. But when you have a past like Holocaust survivor Hershel Greenblat, who spoke Tuesday afternoon in the Rome Middle School gym, it’s impossible to be anything but speechless.
Through a tale of courage, strength and hope, Greenblat inspired his young audience with a simple message — those who don’t heed history are bound to repeat it.
Born in a Ukranian cave, Greenblat spent the first year and a half of his life underground while his parents fought with resistance groups against the Nazis from 1941 to 1942. After his mother was injured in a skirmish, Greenblat’s father led his family to a city farther east, deeper into Russia and out of Nazi-occupied territory. He took a job with the Russian police, which earned them a little money.
However, disaster struck when Greenblat’s father was caught taking two loaves of bread under his coat to bring back to his family. He was sent to a Russian prison camp, where he spent the rest of World War II — over two and a half years.
Standing before the captivated students, Greenblat relayed the horrors of the Holocaust. He told of his aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins rounded up alongside 34,000 other Jews in Ukraine. Men, women and children were given shovels and instructed to dig.
“What they were digging were their own graves. Miles and miles of trenches, 6 to 7 feet deep,” Greenblat said.
Backs to their Nazi murderers, the townspeople were shot. The tragedy came to be known as the Massacre at Babi Yar.
Throughout the presentation, Greenblat showed slides of maps, diagrams and family pictures.
“Some people might say these are just numbers,” Greenblat said, “that 6 million Jews and 1.5 million Jewish children are just numbers. Well, here are some faces.”
He pointed out his aunts and uncles, using wedding pictures of both them and his grandparents.
“How many of the 6 million would have gone on to be doctors or lawyers?” he asked.
After the war ended, Greenblat’s family and 180 other survivors were able to get a hold of two boxcars, which they used to travel 1,800 miles across Europe over nine weeks to an American-controlled zone near Salzburg, Austria. They made it to a DP — displaced persons — camp near the city. Finally, the group was safe.
Greenblat remembers these times with fondness, remarking that they stood in stark contrast to the years on the run, when they lacked clothes, shelter and food.
“I had more Hershey bars thrown at me than you could ever imagine,” Greenblat recalled of the American soldiers’ generosity.
But after a few years, the family knew it was time to leave. Israel, where they wanted to go, was being blockaded by Britain’s Royal Navy, so, they applied to move to the United States. They were accepted and sailed toward New York.
Greenblat remembers vividly the night his father woke him up on the boat and took him up on the deck. There, illuminated by lights, was the Statue of Liberty.
“It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She was there welcoming us. Standing there, it was the first time I ever saw my father cry,” he recalled.
After being processed at Ellis Island, they boarded a train for Atlanta. Using a loan, his father opened a small grocery store.
The now 76-year-old former salesman is in his fourth year of speaking at engagements just like the one Tuesday. He does it for one reason.
“It is because of my father’s strong will that I, my sisters and my mother were able to escape the horror of the Holocaust. I want everyone to remember, so that it never happens again,” he said.
Eighth-grader Kiersten Cooke was happy Rome Middle was his latest stop.
“The story was amazing. I didn’t think that could have happened, I thought (the Holocaust) was all death, not actual people surviving,” she said.
Ewan Parker, also in eighth grade, was similarly blown away.
“I thought it was really inspiring. It’s much more real when you hear a first-person account, because it just hits you in the face, like whoa, this really happened. I’m hearing this guy, who survived this. I felt so lucky,” he said.