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Modern technology helped bring history to life for eighth graders at St. Charles Middle School last week.
On Nov. 20, the students took part in a video conference with Sylvia Malcmacher, a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Menorah Park, a retirement community in Cleveland, Ohio.
Malcmacher, 87, was 16 when the Nazis sent her to the concentration camp. When she was freed at the age of 19, she was the only member of her family still alive.
When the German army invaded Poland in 1941, Malcmacher and her family were living in Vilnius (now the capital of Lithuania).
“Like Jerusalem, it was a cultural and spiritual center of Europe,” Malcmacher told the students.
After the Nazis occupied the city, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos, where food was scarce and living conditions were rough. She added that Jews were forced to wear a yellow scarf at all times so they could be easily identified.
One day, the Nazis ordered all children under 16 to report to a local hospital. Malcmacher took her younger sister, who was 11, to the hospital. After dropping her off, Malcmacher wanted to wait so that she would walk her sister home.
Instead, the Nazis ordered her to leave.
“She never came home,” Malcmacher said. “All the children were taken … and killed.”
Shortly thereafter, Malcmacher and her family were boarded onto trains “like animals” and taken to a concentration camp in Latvia. When they arrived at the camp, their personal possessions were taken from them.
“I don’t have any pictures of my family,” Malcmacher told the students.
She remembered being forced to stand for long periods of time. The Nazis killed those who weren’t able to remain on their feet.
At the camp, their meals consisted of a little bread and some water soup made from potato peals.
“Everybody was hungry. It was not enough. A lot of people died of starvation,” Malcmacher said in response to a student’s question.
Still later, German officers pulled aside 50 girls to take to another concentration camp. At that point, Malcmacher was taken from her mother and her sister.
That was the last time she ever saw them.
At the other camp, Malcmacher and the other women were forced to work for German officers. She said her hands still hurt from a day she was ordered to wash clothes outdoors in freezing cold weather.
Malcmacher remained at the concentration camp in Latvia until May 5, 1945.
“The American army moved in and announced on the loud speaker that ‘You are free’,” she said.
The survivors were transported to a displacement camp. While there, Malcmacher tried to find out if her family was still alive.
“Sadly, I found out my mother, who was 44 years old, and my sister, who was 19 years old, died of typhus,” she said.
Her father also died, at the age of 45, on a ship on the Baltic Sea.
Malcmacher is the only member of her family who lived through the experience. Every other member of her family — aunts, uncles, and cousins included – were killed during the Nazi occupation.
“I don’t know why I survived,” she said.
Malcmacher was 19 when she was taken to the displacement camp. Amid the sadness of losing her family, she also met the man she would marry. Their oldest daughter was born in Germany, but the family moved to the United States in 1949.
After living in the U.S. for five years, they became American citizens. She also had another daughter, who was born in America.
“I am thankful for this wonderful free country that allowed us to come here,” Malcmacher said.
She concluded her remarks by saying the Germans had robbed her of her childhood and her opportunity for an education, but she encouraged the students to work for their dreams.
“You can achieve every goal that you have by staying in school and completing your education,” she said.
After she shared her story, the students were invited to ask questions.
Student Hope Edlin asked how Malcmacher felt when she learned that all her relatives had died.
“How do you feel when you lose your family?” Malcmacher said. “Empty.”
Student Nick Villareal asked about the guards at the concentration camp.
Malcmacher explained that if people didn’t do what they were told, the soldiers would beat them or the soldiers would let dogs attack them.
“The soldiers did what they had to do. Maybe they felt bad inside … but they didn’t show it,” she said. “They were murderers.”
Gracie Cooper asked if Malcmacher would do anything differently. She replied that she would not.
She added that many people who survived the concentration camps later committed suicide. She said she didn’t do that because she felt she would have been another addition to the six million people who were killed during the Holocaust.
After 35 minutes of talking and answering questions, Malcmacher had to go.
The students gave her a standing ovation.