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On Friday, seventh-graders at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School got the opportunity to talk to someone who lived the history that they've only read about in books.
Heini Halberstam, a Champaign-Urbana resident and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, shared his memories of life in World War II Europe and his journey to England as part of the Kindertransport. He began by providing some historical background on the Holocaust, which killed over six million European Jews.
"I hope the very thought of it horrifies you, because it is the very worst that can happen to a group of people," Halberstam told the students at the start of his presentation.
All seventh graders attended the assembly, but Halberstam's visit was prompted by Krista Shoemaker's language arts class, which just finished studying the novel "Night," by Elie Wiesel.
"I think [students] aren't really aware that there are people among us who lived through this," Shoemaker said, adding that meeting Holocaust survivors like Halberstam helps young people understand the lessons of the past.
Halberstam, 85, grew up in the Sudentenland, a German-speaking region that was part of the Czech Republic before being ceded to Germany in 1938. His father, a rabbi, had died in 1937, and Halberstam and his mother fled to Prague. Unknown to him, she had already made plans to send him to safety in England.
In 1939, at the age of 13, Halberstam left Prague as part of the Second Kindertransport, a program devised to send Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia to the United Kingdom. He never saw his mother again. She was arrested in 1942 and sent to a concentration camp in Poland.
There, she was picked for a work team assigned to dig trenches in the marshland, where she probably died within a matter of weeks. "I can't give you any more details, because none are known," Halberstam told the students.
Ann Sussman, whose daughter Ally is in Shoemaker's class, helped organize the visit by putting Shoemaker in touch with Halberstam and the Holocaust Education committee of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation.
Shoemaker said that students at Mahomet-Seymour don't study the Holocaust in their history classes until eighth grade. So she introduced the topic by showing her students documentaries about the period, as well as discussing the effects of racial and ethnic prejudice.
"We talked about labels that you put on people, and how they affect your life," she said.
Halberstam has previously spoken to high-school students in Bloomington and Springfield, among others, but this was his first time addressing a group of young people from the Champaign-Urbana area.
He told the Mahomet-Seymour seventh-graders that he remembers waiting at the train station with his mother. She had baked a ring into a cookie for safekeeping, with the idea that he could use it for emergency funds if needed. But an announcement was made on the platform that children found with valuables would be turned back at the border, and that idea was scrapped.
He said that the ring eventually found its way to him in England through a "circuitous route," and added that his wife Doreen was wearing that same ring now. Sitting in the front row, she held out her hand for students sitting nearby to see.
While in England, Halberstam met a cousin of his father's, who had arranged for him to be made a ward of a Jewish community in London. He attended school there, and later went on to university through the generosity of the people he met, ultimately becoming a mathematician.
The Kindertransport program delivered over 10,000 Jewish children to the U.K. in the early years of the Second World War. Halberstam said that he felt lucky to have had such a good experience in England, since he knows that some Kindertransport children found it difficult to adapt or were even treated like servants by their adopted families.
The seventh-graders asked questions about his experiences. Had he experienced an air raid while in England? (No.) Had he kept in touch with friends in Prague after leaving for the U.K.? (For a little while.)
Asked how he felt upon seeing German soldiers in Prague for the first time during the invasion, he said that it was difficult for him to recall his feelings from so many decades ago. "Your memory goes," he said. "You lose all sense of the past, the feel of the past."
After his presentation to the students, he reflected on the difficulty of conveying his experiences—and the experiences of other Holocaust survivors—to a new generation. "There is no way that any oral or literal description of those events can give you any idea of what it was like to live through that time," he said.
He said that he remembers the chronology of events with some clarity—but that he can't recall the fear and isolation he must've felt as he left his home and family and set off for an unknown country.
"The only thing I must've thought of is how to get through to the next day," he said. The most striking feeling from that tumultuous time period, he added, is the fear that "you don't really know what tomorrow holds for you."
Doreen Halberstam summed up her husband's mission in speaking to schoolchildren. "Lest we forget," she said, "that such things are still going on in the world."
Shoemaker agreed, saying that talking to Halberstam helped her students understand the gravity of things that occurred a lifetime before they were born.
"I think it makes it a little more real for them," she said.