Students filled every space available at Crescenta Valley High School’s library last Thursday to hear Edith Franke’s detailed stories about surviving the Holocaust.
For Franke, it began with anti-Semitic bullying in grade school and eventually a knock on the door of her family home when she was about 12 years old that changed her life. At 2 a.m., armed soldiers instructed the family to gather as many belongings they could carry and drove them to their first stop — a ghetto about 25 kilometers away from their home full of 6,000 other people. Franke went on to survive four Holocaust concentration camps, including Auschwitz, considered the most notorious death camp, before being liberated by the Russian army.
Guest speakers have discussed the Holocaust with Glendale students for the past three years, and the youths could be the last generation to hear firsthand stories as a supplement to their 10th-grade history curriculum.
Crescenta Valley High assistant principal Jordan Lessem, a former history teacher, said, “It’s deeply moving and I strongly believe students should be exposed to it. We’re blessed that we still have these opportunities because we will have less and less over the years.”
Franke left the crowd with two reminders: be nice to each other and never hate anyone based on color, race or religion. She’s spoken about her life to the public in Southern California for more than 25 years and said her goal is “to educate them not to hate.”
David Meyerhof, Holocaust speaker coordinator for the school district, added, “We have no room in this country for hatred. When you see or hear any hateful words or bullying, don’t walk by, don’t turn your back. Hatred will not go away unless you do something about it.”
Although 92-year-old David Lenga was determined not to let the Holocaust define his life, he felt the urge to speak about his experiences when he watched Charlottesville, Va. protesters chant anti-Semitic phrases drawn from Nazi ideology in 2017.
“All the survivors have to raise their voices. This is the time we live in. This is what we need to do and I’m doing my part,” said Lenga.
He was surprised to find out many students weren’t aware of the Holocaust and started working with the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to coordinate speaking engagements.
He said, “The people of the United States, never having had a war (like World War II) on their own soil and never having experienced an enemy that was bent on their devastation, have grown very indifferent to so much suffering that people have been suffering throughout the world.”
Lenga entered Auschwitz when he was 17 years old and spent six years in three concentration camps. Though his father survived, the Holocaust claimed 98 of his family members. He rebuilt his life in the United States, married and created a family that includes three daughters, seven grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
In another act of remembrance, he traveled to the former Nazi camp with his daughter, Berta Kaplowitz, to participate in the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27 along with 200 other Auschwitz survivors. He described what is mostly likely his last trip as “incredible and soul-searing.”
Lenga showed his daughter the bunk he slept in and the crematorium where her relatives died.
“I have no formula or a magic wand to make [anti-Semitism] go away. But I do know that only through education of the younger generation, only through the education of the masses can such a thing be either averted or eliminated,” Lenga said.
Lenga and Joseph Alexander, who survived 12 concentration camps, are scheduled to speak to students at Hoover High on Feb. 13.