"It's an important thing in history and you can't forget about it," said eighth grader George Schlitzer, 14, of West New York Public School No. 2 last week.
In the state of New Jersey, learning about the Holocaust has become a standard part of the seventh and eighth grade curriculum to teach the children about tolerance and racism. Also, as with any lesson in history, it is provided in the hopes that future generations will not repeat the mistakes of the past.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and as a culmination to all the children's lessons and activities, the eighth grade of West New York Public School No. 2 put together their seventh annual Holocaust memorial program for Friday, April 23 organized by three eighth grade teachers: Mike Capozzi, Ron Olivero, and Ana Karras.
"This is something we're hoping they will always remember," said Olivero.
As part of the program, Holocaust survivor Judith Perlaki, 79, was scheduled to speak about her experience. Perlaki and her son Larry, 50, have gone around to many schools around New Jersey sharing their story, but in a unique twist for them, the eighth grade kids of No. 2 school were to make their own tribute, and honor Perlaki and her family.
"We try to treat the survivor as a heroes," said Ana Karras, eighth grade teacher. "We want the person to feel special. It's memorable not only for the survivor, but for the students because they're participating in this."
"It's really great to meet this woman who's going to come here," said George. "These people are survivors and they went through a lot."
"It's sad to know how many people died, especially kids," said eighth grader Linda Lopez, 13.
All the eighth graders were slated to participate in readings or signing songs. A candle lighting ceremony was to be held to honor those who died.
Judith Perlaki, then Weiss, was only 19 years old when she and her family were taken away to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in May of 1944. Leaving behind their home in Hungary, Perlaki arrived at the camp with her parents, brother and five sisters. Immediately upon arrival, she was separated from her parents, brother, and three of her five sisters, who - except for her father - she never saw again. The others were killed the same day they arrived.
"My mother and her two sisters are the only survivors of their family, plus their father," said Perlaki's son Larry, 50.
After they were herded off the trains onto the selection platform, the women with young children were driven to the left for immediate extermination. The rest were sent to the right to be put to work in the camps. Perlaki was able to stay with two of her sisters, Elizabeth, 16, and Lilly, 14. They had no knowledge of where their father was taken.
According to Larry, Hungary was the last of all the countries that the Nazis invaded, and prior to the Hungarian Jews being deported to the death camps, the Nazis had already murdered about five million Jews.
"They were aware that they were losing the war, but the killing was still top priority," said Larry.
Auschwitz was the largest and most infamous death camp in existence, and in 1991 Larry, his mother, and his aunts took a trip back to the grounds that held them prisoners for a year. From this visit Larry was inspired to put together a program detailing the lives of these three sisters before the war, during their incarceration, the camp after Auschwitz's fall, and the trip they took back.
"The theme of my presentation is how hatred, tolerance, and racism were the general cause of the Holocaust, and how important it is for this generation of young people to not repeat the wrongs of the past," said Larry.
A message of love
Larry and his mother have been doing these presentations to school kids and graduate students since 1992. They have gone to as far as Hackettstown, N.J., and have made the presentation about 75 times to audiences as large as 300 people. They have toured public schools, private schools, churches and different groups without regard for denomination or personal beliefs. Perlaki's only desire is to spread a message of love and erase hatred in all its aspects.
"I want to tell them to fill their hearts with love, and I want to teach them that hatred gets them no place," said Perlaki. "It's absolutely wonderful for anything that I could say to change their mind, and really learn to love your neighbor."
Perlaki and her sisters spent about six months at Auschwitz, arriving on May 17, 1944, before they were deported to the slave labor camps in the late fall. The war ended on May 5, 1945.
After the war, Perlaki stayed in Sweden for about four years. She then immigrated to the United States in 1949 with her sister Elizabeth. Before then, though, the girls were reunited with their father, who first moved back to Hungary and then to Israel. Their younger sister Lily also went to Israel. She died in 1996, and their father died in the 1960s.
Growing up there was no mention of the Holocaust to Larry and his sister from either of their parents. They just knew except for their aunts they had no living relatives, and at that time it was very common for survivors to attend functions and socialize with one another.
"These other survivors became my aunts and uncles, and their children became my cousins," said Larry.
"When my children were growing up I never talked about it," said Perlaki. "I never wanted them to grow up with hate."
It wasn't until they were far along in school that Larry and his sister had more knowledge of what happened to their family. While Larry was in college he based a lot of his studies around that subject matter, and his mother finally approached him about it.
"How come you never asked me those questions," she remembers asking Larry. His response was, "I didn't want to hurt you."
Recently they have visited Memorial High School and Ferris High School, and now West New York School No. 2. Their next presentation will be to Clifton Middle School at the end of May.
The response from some of these kids has been phenomenal, and some have even written letters to Perlaki expressing how much her visit changed their thinking and their lives.
"It gives me great satisfaction," she said. "I want the people to remember, and mostly how hate can cause misery and disaster."
Perlaki also mentioned that the one question she's always asked is why she hasn't had the numbered tattoo on her arm removed.
Her response is, "For two reasons. One they weren't ashamed to put it on me so I'm not ashamed to wear it, and two, I have proof that I can go straight to heaven because I've been to hell already."