More than 100 high school students from 22 different countries convened at Dominion High School this week to hear the stories of five holocaust survivors.
This week marked the school’s weeklong Loudoun International Youth Leadership Summit, which saw teens from around the world take part in an “Adopt a Survivor” event on Thursday. It was organized by the school’s Jewish Student Union. The program, created by a holocaust survivor 20 years ago, is focused around two key elements—survivors telling their stories and students vowing to become “surrogate survivors” by passing on the history and memories of a survivor.
“This is your chance to look directly into the face of genocide,” said Nicole Korsen, the program coordinator and an English teacher at Dominion.
In addition to encouraging the students to reiterate their adopted survivors’ stories once a year, Korsen also requested that the international students share their stories with one class back at home, noting how great it would be if their stories were being told in countries like Spain, South Korea, China, Romania, Norway, the Netherlands and many more.
After an opening commemoration ceremony designed to bring awareness to Yom Hashoah, an Israeli holiday commemorating the six million lives lost in the holocaust that was celebrated on Thursday, the students split into five groups to hear from the survivors, ask them questions and generally connect.
Hirsch Barth, a Polish Jew who survived the holocaust, discussed his vagabond childhood with a group of about 30 wide-eyed students in the school’s music room. When a Polish student realized where Barth was originally from, she broke into tears and asked him if he still knew how to speak Polish. Barth said he could not speak it very well anymore, though, since he was forced to learn six different languages while growing up and running from the Nazi regime.
“This is fact,” he said. “I’m not telling you any stories.”
When a student asked holocaust survivor John Grausz if he ever felt the urge to resist the opposing forces, Grausz said there wasn’t any time to even think of devising such a scheme. “I think we were just too busy trying to stay alive,” he said.
At the end of the discussion sessions, representatives from the Jewish Student Union asked students to sign up as surrogate survivors by lighting an electronic candle they were given and telling a survivor’s story each year on Yom Hashoah and especially in the year 2045, which will be the 100th anniversary of the concentration camp liberation.
Jaden Steele, the program’s media outreach coordinator and a student at Dominion, said that almost the entire group of students who listened to Grausz speak pledged to continue telling his story.
“This is huge because now his story will never be lost to time,” she said. “We can all read about the Holocaust, but not every student gets the opportunity to actually meet survivors and hear their stories.”