Columbia High students learn story of a holocaust survivor

By on December 6, 2017

Geri Crain, daughter of Alice Kern, recounting her mother’s story. (Kip Tabb)

Speaking to students from Columbia High School about her mother, Holocaust survivor Alice Kern, Geri Crain described a time, place and world that many students never knew existed.

“It made me realize how bad the world could be,” sophomore Andy Comstock said.

Alice Kern grew up in the city of Sighet, Rumania. Located in Transylvania, Kern’s daughter described an idyllic time. “Prior to Hitler coming to power the Jews had a nice life. Her family were kind of an upper middle class family,” she told the students. “They called her town Little Paris.”

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In 1940, as a reward for supporting Hitler and Nazi Germany, Hungary was given Sighet and the surrounding area and life began to change.

According to Crain, her mother wasn’t aware at first of what was happening.

“She didn’t know there were problems politically. Her parents didn’t talk to her about it,” she said.

Then the new rules began.

“Her dad owned a shop in town. It was a fancy place that had imported cheeses and imported foods,” she said. “One time a law came that just seemed to come out of the blue, that Jews could not own businesses.”

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Kern’s father had to close his business, and he died of a heart attack soon after.

The indignities did not stop there. Soon Jewish girls were not allowed to go to school, and other restrictions followed.

“Jewish people can no longer walk on the sidewalk. They must walk on the street,” Crain said told the students. At a time and place where cars were still not common and horse transport was used, the purpose of the new law was clear.

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Students at the presentation. A workshop on the Holocaust for area teachers was also held in Columbia. (Kip Tabb)

Finally all the Jews in Sighet were rounded up, their movements restricted to a ghetto in one small part of the city. The large upper-middle class home of Alice Kern became a crowded apartment building.

Then the Nazis came for all the men and boys, taking them away to some unnamed destination.

Crain told the students about one young man who managed to find his way back to the ghetto.

“He had escaped and came back to town to warn all the Jewish people who were still there. They took all these men and boys and lined them up at a big, huge ravine and shot them,” she said.

“And my mom and everyone else who heard this…they had never heard of anything so horrible and drastic and they didn’t believe him,” Crain said.

That reaction to the horror of what the young man recounted was consistent with what many survivors later recalled.

According to numerous reports, the Jews who were living through those times were convinced that it was a temporary situation, that their friends and neighbors in the long run would never allow this to go on for too long.

In May of 1944 things got much for the women and children of Sighet.

“One day this knock came on the door and it was really loud. They said, ‘You need to get out into the streets right now…’ They were chased to the train station and loaded into cattle cars,” Crain said.

Three nights and two days without food or water and the last Jews of Sighet came to their destination.

“When the train stopped and the doors opened up…and they were told to walk in this long line,” she said. Kerns had made it to the camp with her mother and two of her young cousins. There was a man standing on a platform indicating where each person would go.

“This man pointed to my mom and said, ‘You go that way to your right.’ And he pointed to my mom’s mom and the two little cousins, ‘You go that way (left).’ My mom didn’t want to be separated from her family and she started to go with them. An angry soldier came down and almost stabbed her with his bayonet.”

The man directing the human traffic was Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, and the camp was Auschwitz. She never saw her mother or cousins again.

The book recounts Kern’s journey through the Holocaust.

More indignities and dangers followed. Her head was shaved and she was issued a burlap sack for clothing. Then came the tattoo—a number that became her new name.

Her mother, Crain said, had lost a lot of weight and was in danger of being selected.

“They would go through a process called selection,” she explained. “She (Kerns) said it was really the scariest time. They would have to go out and get in a line. Two Nazis would be on either side of the line and they would have to walk through the line completely naked. If they were too skinny or looked sick or looked like they weren’t good strong workers, they were selected and would go to the place where no one was ever seen again.”

In January of 1945 came the Auschwitz Death March—they walked for two days and three nights with no food, no water and anyone who stumbled or fell was shot. Again herded into cattle cars, although these had no roof. The destination—Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen was not equipped to exterminate thousands everyday, and the strategy became one of attrition through starvation. Kern’s barrack received one turnip a day for everyone in the building.

Weighing 47 pounds, Alice Kerns, was close to death when British troops arrived on April 15, 1945. She recovered and lived until 2010.

The story of her mother’s survival that Crain told touched the students who witnessed it.

“My heart dropped when she was talking about her mom,” Natasha White said.

“I don’t see how someone can hurt someone like that and still live with yourself,” Bryce Rose said.

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Comments

Mary Renaud

Saturday, Dec 9 3:03 pm

I make it a point to read holocaust memories like this. I’m not Jewish. I want to know and understand what regular people could have done to stop this. Was it that much of a secret? Today in the U.S. I fear this atmosphere is developing more strongly toward people of color, or different religion. What can a citizen to change this and redirect?

Hope

Friday, Dec 8 8:04 pm

Hope the follow up lesson explored his Muslims, Mexicans and others might feel in the current US environment
Empathy, courage and action could have averted both Jewish and unspoken Chinese holocaust I’m counting on young folk to prevent a Muslim/ people of color holocaust in these times

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