Holocaust Survivor Shares Message of Acceptance at Dayton School

May 20, 2023
Fifth-graders and family members who gathered May 18 in a Dayton Elementary School classroom were eager to learn about the past from a Holocaust survivor named AnneMarie, from San Francisco.

The 94-year-old obliged by recounting her story of loss and resilience – as she has done many times – but she also implored her listeners to reject hatred and value differences.

“I want to emphasize that at this time there’s a lot of hate out there because people are frustrated with the situation. That’s why today I want to make you aware of the word ‘acceptance’,” she told youngsters in teacher Tina Wakeman’s class at Dayton. “We don’t have to love each other, but accept each other.”

In Chemnitz, Germany, at age 9, AnneMarie watched in horror as Nazis dragged her father from the family’s apartment on Nov. 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, or “the Night of Broken Glass,” when Hitler’s SS troops attacked Jewish communities throughout the country. During her talk at Dayton, she showed students the cloth gold Star of David she was forced to wear.

That night shattered the comfortable, happy family and school life she had known until then. “We lost everything,” AnneMarie said. “It doesn’t matter. Do you know what’s important? Life. To be alive.”

In the years before the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews, her mother had the means to buy her husband’s release from Buchenwald, and the family was smuggled into Belgium, where they took refuge in Brussels.

After the Germans occupied Belgium in 1940, her parents stayed hidden in an attic room with the help of local resisters. AnneMarie, who spoke only German, was placed in a nearby convent school for girls. Along with dozens of other Jewish girls, she was able to hide in plain sight while pretending to be Catholic, a faith she later converted to as an adult.

In 1948, after the war’s end, AnneMarie began another new life, this time in San Francisco, where she was sponsored by an aunt. Her father was able to join her four years later. Her mother had previously died in Belgium following a stroke and a lack of adequate medical treatment. AnneMarie said she had childhood friends and extended family members who died in the Nazi death camps.

“So I came here, and I had to adjust also,” she said. “New language, new friends, new relatives, but I made it. Went to high school. Learned English. I met my husband, I got married. We had two children.”

She lost both her children as adults, her son to drug abuse as a young man and her daughter in middle age to chronic disease.

For Wakeman’s students, AnneMarie’s appearance was a rare opportunity to hear from someone whose life trajectory was dramatically altered by a great tragedy of the 20th century. She said she uses the Holocaust as a means to teach both history and character development through historical fiction, drawing on the novel “Milkweed” by Jerry Spinelli, set in Warsaw, Poland.

Their study leads into reading and learning about social justice as an ideal and responsibility that all people have to make their communities and world a better place, Wakeman said.

After AnneMarie’s brief talk, students’ questions zeroed in on details, but that did not obscure the bigger picture.

“The students were very excited and honored by AnneMarie’s visit,” Wakeman said. “In our debrief, students commented how amazing and brave she was to deal with the many horrible things in her life. … One student shared that, even after all the terrible things she had to deal with, she was a kind and happy person.  

“Many students noted that she lost so much and that her lesson to them was to not hate and be respectful to others instead.”  

Wakeman said she is hopeful that message will stick.

“My hope for this visit was to bring a real-life experience and connection to the truth of history and plant the seeds in my students of the importance of being an upstander in their own everyday lives,” she said. “I wanted them to begin to see how the smaller moments of doing the right thing really matter to the larger picture of who they are becoming as individuals, human beings and citizens in community.”  

AnneMarie’s appearance at Dayton was arranged by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center in San Francisco, through its William J. Lowenberg Speakers Bureau, with funding from the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Milkweed Film & Middle School Holocaust Education Project, which provides teaching lessons about the Holocaust, empathy and being an upstander to students across North America.