Holocaust survivor gives lesson in tolerance to North Fork high schoolers

10/04/2010 2:11 PM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO Holocaust survivor Werner Reich spoke to high schoolers at Mattituck High School on the rise of Nazi power and his survival in the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps Monday. The occasion was an Anti-Bias Education Day, sponsored by Southold Town's Youth Bureau.

All that it takes for evil to go unchecked in the world is for good people to do nothing.
That was the key to Werner Reich’s two-and-a-half hour lecture on the rise of Nazi power and his survival in the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps, a lecture he gave to 65 kids from three North Fork high schools Monday morning.
The occasion was an Anti-Bias Education Day, sponsored by Southold Town’s Youth Bureau, held in the Mattituck High School library for most of the school day Monday.
Mr. Reich’s presentation was the keynote for an “each one teach one,” program, said Youth Bureau Director Phillip Beltz, who explained that students at Monday’s training exercise would go back to their home districts to educate their peers about leading bias-free lives. The town began anti-bias education in 2009 due to rising concern about hate crimes after the murder of Latino immigrant Marcello Lucero in Patchogue.
Mr. Reich, originally from Germany, is now 82 years old, a retired executive living in Smithtown. He was just a young boy when his family moved to Yugoslavia in 1933 after Adolph Hitler came to power and his father lost his job as an engineer in Germany because he was a Jew.
He remembers his childhood in Croatia, in what was then Yugoslavia, as an idyllic one, until the Germans invaded in 1941 and set up a puppet Nazi state. He spent two years in hiding, developing film for the resistance movement, until the Gestapo came knocking at the door of the family who was sheltering him and arrested him. He began the arduous journey through camps in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria in 1943 at the age of 15.
“There were 13 Jewish kids in my class before the war, but after I was the only one alive,” he said.
Mr. Reich remembered a chilling encounter with Dr. Joseph Mengele, the physician in Auschwitz-Birkenau known as the Angel of Death, after prisoners were ordered to run and perform physical exercises naked in front of the doctor. Most who were allowed to live were young and athletic. Young Reich was among 89 out of about 6,000 people whom the doctor spared from the gas chamber,
“Eight months later, only 40 of the 89 were still alive,” he said.
Mr. Reich was moved to the Mauthausen camp in Austria, a work camp where prisoners had to carry 100 pound rocks up 186 steps from a quarry, only to be kicked down a hill by guards.
Mr. Reich warmly recalled a doctor who was a prisoner in Mauthausen, who cut off Mr. Reich’s frostbitten toes. It was an act of kindness, and one of the greatest, he experienced in the course of the entire ordeal.
He was freed from Mauthausen by U.S. troops on May 5, 1945.
The importance of righteous and just people, like the doctor in Mauthausen, was one of the greatest lessons that Mr. Reich tried to leave with the students.
“If you ever find yourself anywhere, in the hallways of this school or anywhere else, where you’re a victim, the victim can do nothing about it,” he said. The three other types of people who were not victims, he said, were the bully and his gang of friends, the bystander, and the just person, who spoke out against oppression.
“Do not wait for others. Be the first to act,” he said, then reminded students of the 1964 Queens murder of Kitty Genovese, in which 38 people said they heard her cries for help but no one came to her aid.
One student asked if Mr. Reich saw any parallels between his experience and Arizona’s recent regulations requiring immigrants to carry papers to show police, proving their nationality.
“Indifference is the essence of inhumanity,” he answered, saying the plight of Latino people in Arizona whom the police decide to challenge was certainly parallel to his experience. “We keep forgetting that people are people. People are human beings. To turn around and ignore others is not right,” he said. “When we forget that, we become different people. There’s a certain inhumanity that creeps into you.”

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