“She told us how her family owned a store and the Nazis came in and ran-sacked everything,” said Mark Rotondo, 13, a seventh grader at St. Kevin School. “Her mother had sheet music for her piano and they took it and set fire to it.”
Alice Goldstein, 80, a Warwick resident and speaker for the Holocaust Education and Resource Center of Rhode Island, recently addressed Rotondo, along with 15 of his classmates, as well as 11 eighth graders. She spoke about her experience as a 7-year-old in Germany in the days leading up to World War II.
The center is located in Providence at 401 Elmgrove Street and aims to reduce prejudice against all minorities by teaching the community to bear witness to the Holocaust and honor those who died as a result.
“I think it’s important for the children to meet a person who witnessed some of the issues, some of the horrors, of the Holocaust,” said Goldstein, who has been a speaker for the Center for more than 15 years. “It gives me encouragement that young people are thinking about issues of equality and diversity.”
As a child living in Kenzingen, Germany, she recalls being isolated from her friends and was terrified that her father spent time in Dachau, a concentration camp, during 1938.
However, she and her parents were able to flee the country to the United States and arrived in America in August 1939. Her parents worked as domestic servants for two years before her father earned a management position at a large department store.
Sadly, her grandparents died in concentration camps and her parents never spoke of it. For Goldstein, being a speaker for the Center helps her deal with the heartache of the Holocaust.
“We need to be able to educate everybody,” she said. “By visiting schools, I really feel that I can help raise awareness.”
The students were moved by Goldstein’s story. Seventh grader Rachel Taraian, 12, said the presentation was informative and heartfelt.
“It made you feel what they went through and how tragic the situation was for all who were there,” she said.
Eighth grader Aubrey Moreira, 13, agreed.
“It was good to have a firsthand account,” she said. “It’s different from reading a book.”
Her classmate Alaina Moran, 13, said she thinks it’s important to learn about what happened during the Holocaust so it doesn’t repeat itself, while fellow eighth grader David Augustyn, 13, found it shocking that Goldstein’s father was kicked off a soccer team because he was Jewish.
But, seventh grader Matthew Rowlands, 14, wasn’t as shocked.
“It sounds like a lot of stuff that happens today,” Rowlands said. “Then, it was just with more severity, but people get bullied today.”
In addition to meeting with Goldstein, eighth grade teacher Darlene Caruolo arranged for Rev. Fr. David Green, former pastor of St. Kevin’s Parish, to speak to the children, as Green visited Poland four years ago.
During his journey, Fr. Green explored what used to be concentration camps in Auschwitz and took photographs that illustrated how Jewish people were treated and how their possessions were confiscated.
The pictures Fr. Green shared emotionally touched Victoria Ferri, 13, a seventh grader.
“They took their suitcases and piled them up. They took their clothes and shoes and put them in piles and gave them uniforms,” said Ferri.
Seventh graders Joe Barber, 12, and Chris Johnson, 12, said the experience must have been terrifying.
“I thought it was really frightening that they put the Jewish people in gas chambers when they thought they were taking showers,” Barber said.
Johnson added, “It was horrible how they tried to dehumanize them like they were animals and not real people. They made them live in harsh conditions.”
For their classmate Rachel Antonizio, 12, Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in Auschwitz, amazed her.
“One guy was crying because he had a family and Maximilian Kolbe went over to him and asked if they could switch places,” Rachel said. “He saved that man and comforted all the other people as they died. He was the last one to die.”
Before guest speakers Goldstein and Fr. Green visited, Caruolo had eighth graders read the book, “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The novel tells the tale of the author’s experience with his father at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Justin Mai, 13, an eighth grader, said, “The first chapter was a little emotional because it gives a synopsis of what happened during the Holocaust.”
Although she said it’s commonly assigned to high school students, Caruolo made it appropriate to their level through vocabulary and comprehension lessons.
“I tell them to think of three things that are most important to them and say, ‘Now, just imagine having everything taken away from you for no reason,’” Caruolo said. “I think it’s important, especially in this day and age, to have them aware of it and to learn tolerance. They need to know that people cannot be treated unfairly.”
Goldstein, who eventually became a research associate at Brown University, is also an author of a Holocaust chronicle, “Ordinary People, Turbulent Times.” It was published three years ago and is available on amazon.com.
For now, some students said they plan to read her book, while all of them will be participating in an essay and poetry contest offered by the Holocaust Center.
“Last year, three of our students placed,” Caruolo said.