Updated, 9:54 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – The good people did nothing, Werner Reich said over and over again recently to Norwalk children, explaining a trauma of his youth.
“Today I am going to talk to you about what happens when we don’t take care of each other,” the Holocaust survivor said Jan. 22 to ASPIRE afterschool school program students in the Family & Children’s Agency Ben Franklin location.
Reich, 91, went on to quote Winston Churchill as saying that “since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 16th century there has never been extermination of such a scale,” and struggling to come up for a term of the murder of millions of people in the 1940s. He hid in an apartment with resistance fighters when he was 13- to 15-years old, but one day there was a knock on the door and the Gestapo – the German secret police – took them away and beat him, he said.
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
“I was bleeding and crying,” he said. He remained in a basement cell for three days before being shipped to a border town and locked in cell filled with fleas.
“It was terrible,” he said.
Reich patiently explained his experiences and the overall impact of the Holocaust in a matter-of-fact yet emotionally affecting way.
The talk was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students, designed to make history come alive, ASPIRE said in a press release.
“This will really drive home the true importance of why we must know and be aware of the history of our world. We are teaching the students to make connections with current world events, particularly the racial and ethnic divides that are so prevalent at this time, and motivate them to continue to use their voice to create an equal and just world,” Amy Jeffereis, Manager of ASPIRE, is quoted as saying.
Reich repeatedly explained that Jews weren’t the only victims of the Germans. Of the 12 million people who died, half were Christian or Muslim and half were Jewish, he said.
“If I were to ask you to image 12 million people, you couldn’t,” he said.
One and a half million people died because “the good people did nothing,” he said. “… The Nazis knew one thing for sure, the bystanders protect the bullies.”
“Mr. Reich’s visit follows a performance by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in November which allowed the students to see the world from the perspective of Anne Frank and ask her questions as if she were still alive,” the press release said.
Anne Frank died in 1945 at age 15, while in a German concentration camp. She kept a diary while in hiding from the Germans, and it has become one of the world’s most famous books.
Reich talked of being incarcerated in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Many people couldn’t take the camp, they committed suicide,” he said.
One of the children asked him how many people survived Auschwitz.
“There are all different types of survivors. The term survivor means anybody who managed to survive the war. … there were not that many concentration camp survivors like me,” he said.
Reich has been speaking about his experiences for more than 20 years.
“Since his retirement, Reich has authored two books and has been a frequent speaker in colleges and schools, addressing more than 1,500 each year, stressing the concept that ‘indifference kills,’” the Great Neck Record reports. “Reich has been an invited speaker in several countries overseas and with the Long Island Philharmonic. He is a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County and, in 2005, was awarded its Speaker of the Year award and the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award for Educator of the Year. In 2015, the New York State Assembly honored Reich for his work.”
“The world owes me nothing,” Reich told the Norwalk children. “I am an extremely cultured and happy person… Life has been good to me, has been extremely good to me because I am alive, and others are not. I have no complaints.”
“Please take care of each other,” he said, more than once.
He was asked how he survived the concentration camps. It helped that he was a teenager, he said.
“We had a very positive outlook in Auschwitz because if you didn’t, the only alternative was death and I mean, death, terminal, that’s it, finished,” he said. “And we saw it, we saw it lying on the ground, we smelled it in the air. We used to say in Auschwitz, ‘I am happy that I am in Auschwitz. If I wouldn’t be happy, I would still be in Auschwitz. Might as well be happy.’ Because we were happy Jews. It worked. I knew I am going to survive and as you can see, I was right. Unfortunately, thousands and thousands were wrong. But they are not here today.”