Clarksburg School's annual Holocast Studies program featured Inge Auerbacher, signing books at left, who survived three years in a concentration camp as a child. This year's projects were based on Auerbacher's book 'I Am a Yellow Star.'
CLARKSBURG, Mass. — A powerful lesson in history became a call to action for the present on Wednesday when Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher spoke to a packed gymnasium at Clarksburg Elementary School.
"I now live in Queens, in a row house," Auerbacher said during a question-and-answer period after her prepared remarks. "On one side of me, there is a devout Muslim family. On the other side, there is a Hindu family. ... But we all get along.
"When we understand each other, live with each other, go to each other's places of worship, that's what happens.
"Ignorance is the thing that happened in Germany. ... Ignorance creates a lot of problems."
And thanks to survivors like Auerbacher, the world cannot claim ignorance of the atrocities committed seven decades ago, when Nazi Germany systematically killed 11 million people, including six million Jews.
Auerbacher and her parents miraculously survived a concentration camp in her native Germany. Through her books and appearances like Wednesday's, she continues to tell the tale of those who were not so lucky.
"Those children's eyes haunt me," she said. "I have a mission to keep their memories alive."
Auerbacher was in Clarksburg as the featured speaker at the elementary school's eighth annual Holocaust Exhibit.
Each year, the school's eighth-graders study the Holocaust and create an historical exhibit under the direction of teacher Michael Little, historian and collector Darrell K. English and Rabbi Robert Sternberg.
In introducing Auerbacher, Little explained that the exhibit is the culmination of several months of study that includes a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., funded largely through the generosity of Stockbridge residents Robert and Elaine Baum.
On Wednesday, the gymnasium was filled with artifacts on loan from English's New England Holocaust Institute in North Adams and multimedia displays created by the Clarksburg students to retell the story in Auerbacher's autobiographical account "I Am A Star."
Although many find the annual event difficult, it serves an important purpose, Little said.
"We implore our students to make conscious choices against all forms of discrimination," he said.
Those conscious choices might be the only thing standing between humanity and future genocides.
A recurring theme in Auerbacher's presentation was the idea that throughout the years when Jews and other minorities were rounded up and shipped to death camps, average citizens did nothing to stop the horror.
She illustrated her speech with slides showing not only her family's life before the Holocaust but also rare images of Jews being deported from the state of Baden in southeast Germany.
"You see townspeople standing around doing nothing," she pointed out.
Teacher Michael Little said the course was important in teaching children about discrimination.
"It's very easy to look the other way," Auerbacher reminded her audience later. "But I tell you that if Hitler had succeeded with the Jews, you would not be sitting here today. He was not finished with the Jews."
Auerbacher told a captivated audience about the horrors of captivity in Hitler's Germany — how as a young child, she saw her mother beaten by an SS guard, had hunger as a "constant companion," suffered from boils and head lice in a prison "hospital," dealt with rats and vermin on a daily basis ... and lived to call herself one of the lucky ones.
She and her family emigrated to the United States, where she faced one more trial: a bout of tuberculosis that kept her in the hospital for two years and caused complication that plagued her for years thereafter. But despite not starting school until after she turned 15, Auerbacher went on to work as a research chemist for 38 years.
Now "78 years young," she travels the world to give living testimony of man's inhumanity to man as well as the power of the human spirit.
"This will be the last generation that will tell you what happened," said Auerbacher, who went into the camp in 1942 at age 7. "Most survivors are between 80 and 90, and they're dying every day."
She was grateful for the opportunity to share her story with the Clarksburg community and gladder still that Little and English have created a tradition of remembrance in the town.
"Here in this little town, you have something so special you bring tears to my eyes," Auerbacher said.