They’ve read about it in books, watched movies that dramatically portrayed it, viewed PBS documentaries that analyzed and tried to explain it and heard their teachers discuss it, but when Huntington High School sophomores came face to face with Annie Bleiberg, who survived the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland it brought the Holocaust to life in a way that nothing else could match.
The recent visit with 150 Huntington tenth graders was coordinated by social studies teacher Jordan Gould. “Annie was born in Oleszye, Poland,” the veteran educator said. “Soon after the Germans occupied Poland in 1939 they established ghettos and forced Jews, including Annie and her family into them. When the ghetto was liquidated, the Jewish inhabitants were crammed into a train and went to Belzec, an annihilation camp.”
Ms. Bleiberg’s father engineered a dramatic escape from the train for his family, including Annie, who went into hiding. “She was betrayed by a classmate and ultimately sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Mr. Gould said. “After the war she came to the United States and settled in the Bronx where she was active in a variety of Jewish organizations. She relocated to Woodbury and continues her activities there.”
Mr. Gould arranged the visit through the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. Ms. Bleiberg shared her experiences with the Huntington sophomores and later fielded their questions.
“I have an extremely interactive global history course called Global Vision, in which students learn using John Dewey’s method of experiential learning,” said Mr. Gould while explaining why he brought Ms. Bleiberg to the high school. “Her presence was actually part of a larger simulation called the World Court Games, in which a trial exists between the Allies and Axis to determine who was more responsible for causing World War II. Of course, she was not actually on trial, but her account was used as part of the evidence for determining the outcome of the case.”
Mr. Gould invited other Global History classes to come to Ms. Bleiberg’s presentation and participate in the question and answer session that followed. “I’ve been arranging to have Holocaust survivors present for this program over the past 10 years,” the veteran teacher said.
A strong proponent of experiential learning, Mr. Gould has utilized it with other classes, too. “For my African American Politics course, I took students on a field trip to hear from and interact with Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers,” he said. “There’s no better teaching, I feel, than experience itself.”
Ms. Bleiberg never fails to move her audience. “I was fortunate to be in attendance,” social studies teacher Camille J. Tedeschi said. “While listening to Annie’s story I realized I had met her a few years ago when Mr. Gould brought her to Huntington High School for a similar event. She was engaging and all of the students were enthralled by her story. She left the audience, including myself, with some wonderful wisdom.”
Ms. Bleiberg gave the Huntington sophomores plenty of one-line statements to consider: “Life is precious.” “Fight for life.” “Never give up hope; try your best.” “Education, education, education.” “Hitler was a coward.”
“One of the most memorable moments came when she lifted her shirt sleeve to show her tattoo and then explained that she had numbers and a triangle and there are not many alive with the triangle because it meant she was a rebel and fought back,” Ms. Tedeschi said.
Ms. Bleiberg is lucky to be alive. Millions perished at the hands of the Nazis. “It was truly hell,” she said.