Ensuring students never forget English i students listen to the experience of a Holocaust survivor

Steen Metz, a Holocaust survivor, talked to English l students yesterday about his experience in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp.

“I always tell students to be my ambassador," Metz said. "Talk to at least four people so they know the Holocaust happened.”

According to Jordan Addison, English teacher, the English l classes will read Night by Elie Wiesel, a memoir of the author’s experience in Auschwitz during World War ll. English l teachers decided to have Metz speak to students to provide appropriate background for the book. “I think it is so important for students to meet and learn from survivors for several reasons. First, this humanizes the stories we read that can sometimes feel like they happened hundreds of years ago. Second, it is in immense honor to hear survivors speak,” Addison said.

Metz, eight years old, Summer 1943

Metz lived in Odense, Denmark. On April 9, 1940, Hitler attacked Denmark by air, land, and sea; Denmark was not prepared for any attack. About 8,000 of the 4,500,000 people in Denmark were Jewish. Metz said the conditions were “relatively normal” for the first three years compared to other infiltrated locations around Europe. By the Fall of 1943, groups of college students, angered that Germany took over Denmark, started attacking Nazis in their towns. In Odense, the Churchill Group burned railways and attacked Nazis with weapons that were shipped from Britain. Hitler ordered them to be sentenced to death, but the Danish government refused; Nazis began arrested Jewish people. During this time, roughly 95% of Jewish individuals were able to escape to Sweden.

School field, drop off for Jewish prisoners, October 1943

On October 2, 1943, Metz’s family was arrested. They had 45 minutes to get dressed and gather their belongings, and his father was encouraged to bring money. The family was then driven by bus to a school yard. When 60 buses arrived, everyone was transported into a train car where they would be locked in for 80 hours without food and water. Metz recalls a woman said she would prefer suicide rather than be taken to a concentration camp. Metz was one of four total children in the car.

“It’s difficult for an eight year old boy to understand why were we going there? Why isn’t my neighbor here? Why isn’t my cousin here?” Metz said.

After the long hours, the train stopped at Terezin, Czechoslovakia, where the Nazis took all valuable belongings, including jewelry and money. Then they were split into groups of men, women, children, and elders, although Metz was able to stay with his mother.

"It was difficult to live with the trauma," Metz said, "[but] it helped a great deal to stay with my mother and I like to think I was her support [in the camp]."
Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, drawing of bunk beds

They were imprisoned in the camp for 18 months and stayed in the bunk beds, where there were fleas. Anyone 16 year olds and up were adults, who had to work in slave labor. Workers were whipped and kicked, and heavily abused. Metz’s father lost 50% of his body weight from the labor and poor food supply, and was sent to the infirmary when he reached critical health, but the doctors and nurses - medical staff were mainly Jewish people - could not save him. As a child, Metz did not have to work, but he did voluntary deliver messages and documents to Nazi soldiers.

Metz recalls, “I asked my mother, ‘Did you ever give up hope?’ She said to me, ‘No, you can never give up hope, especially when you have a nine year old boy.’”
Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, drawing of lines for food

For breakfast, everyone would line up for coffee, which Metz says was just hot water, and half a loaf of bread for the whole week. They had potato soup every day (boiled water with potato peels) as their lunch. Metz says he refused to eat it at first, but his mother told him it was the only way for him to survive. Eventually the camp started receiving packages from the Red Cross containing food, clothing, and vitamins, but on some occasions the Nazis would take the supplies and replace them with stones.

As his mother worked cleaning floors, Metz would try to play with other children at the camp on a gravel field. His mother tied rags together to substitute a soccer ball, which the boys would kick around. One day, the boys did not come to the field, but Metz’s mother assured him they would come back another day. Later on, Metz found out these boys were part of the 85,000 people that were killed in the gas chambers.

Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Red Cross vehicles arrive to liberate the camp, November 1944

On November 18, 1944, cars came to the camp and liberated the Jewish prisoners. Metz says they received sandwiches, snacks, and chocolate, and were transported to Sweden, where they had to stay in quarantine before they were allowed in public. Later he and his mother would reunite with the rest of their family, who had all survived, except his father.

“You have to differentiate between the Nazis and the Germans. When we got back, to me everyone was a Nazi and they were all bad people," Metz said. "For many years I didn’t want anything to do with German people or the German country, because Hitler was a terrible man and did horrible things to the Jewish people. As I got older, I was able to think about it [...] It wouldn’t be fair if I treated Germans in a different way, so I changed gradually and accepted who they are, but I can never accept what the Nazis did.”

Addison hopes Metz's story allows students to not only draw connections to their novel, but to learn about the Holocaust from survivors while they still can. “As Mr. Metz mentioned in his talk to us, the survivors are getting on in years and won’t be around forever," Addison said. "There will shortly come a time in our world where all we have are stories and no more people to tell them firsthand.”