Warwick Veterans High School students received a living lesson in history Monday from Rabbi Baruch G. Goldstein, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in Poland.
“In the 20th century, racism was the source of indescribable evil in the world,” Goldstein told the rapt students. “The Nazi government had only two main goals. One was to make Germany the strongest nation on earth. Their second goal was to eliminate all inferior races and to them, almost all others were inferior.”
Goldstein was at Vets by way of an arrangement with the Holocaust Education and Resource Center of Rhode Island. He was there to help Ed Kimmerlein, the social studies department head at Vets and Gorton Jr. High School. All of the American History and Western Civilization students filled about a dozen rows in the front of the auditorium.
“The students are studying World War II and the Holocaust and are eager to hear this speaker,” wrote Kimmerlein when he invited us. “They know that this could very easily be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Goldstein is a perfect pick to tell the kids about the Holocaust. He was only 16 when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and sent Goldstein on the road to a front row seat to one of the most enormous crimes against humanity in history. Goldstein’s town was about 100 miles from Warsaw and one of the first to see the “blitzkrieg” tactics of the Nazi military, which never bothered itself with distinctions between civilians and soldiers.
“Many people ran as the airplanes started shooting, even though they well knew they were civilians running for their lives,” recalled Goldstein.
Little did Goldstein and other Polish Jews know that bombing civilians carelessly was one of the least disgusting strategies of the German war machine and the Nazi party’s advance toward “the final solution.”
For kids who rankle at dress codes and their parents’ complaints about the way they look, the Vets students were transfixed as Goldstein described the almost immediate measures taken against Jews in Poland.
“Jews lost their jobs,” he said. “They were barred from professions and we were forced to wear these yellow stars on our clothes to let people know we were Jews.”
Goldstein told of how his family had to leave town and go to other cities by order of the Nazis. They tried to survive and stay together but it was impossible. They ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto for a time, where Nazis conveniently bottled up the troublesome problem of the Jews. The Goldsteins were split up and sent to separate concentration camps in 1942. He lost track of his father and sister first, then his mother. Goldstein and his younger brother were sent to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp where thousands were slowly worked and starved to death.
“When we got off the cars, my brother and I tried to hold on to each other but the guards sent me in one direction and him in another,” Goldstein said. “I never saw my brother again.”
Every now and again, Goldstein paused in his presentation to deliver an aside to the students.
“As part of the final solution, some German soldiers put Jews in a locked truck and fed the exhaust fumes into the truck,” he said. “By the time they reached the destination, the Jews were dead. Back in Berlin, they were debating the best way to achieve ‘the final solution.’ Can you imagine human beings sitting around debating about what’s the best way to kill large groups of people?”
Goldstein told the students about the cruel joke of a motto above the gate at Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will make you free).
“Our heads were shaved, we were given striped clothes and tattoos were put on our arms,” he said.
When he turned to fellow inmates to ask what could have happened to his brother, he received a stark and dispiriting reply.
“They told me, ‘Your brother has gone up the chimney,’” he said. “Before long, we learned what they were talking about.”
Ironically, work did save Goldstein and very few others. As long as you could do the work and survive on starvation rations, you were allowed to live. If you got sick or injured or simply couldn’t get up again, you died. Goldstein managed to survive until being liberated in the spring of 1945. He was emaciated and unable to stand on his own, but he did recover physically. For years, he refused to talk about his experiences, but eventually he realized his own soul and possibly the soul of mankind itself, and began to open up about the past. He wrote a book, “For Decades I was Silent: A Holocaust Survivor’s Journey Back to Faith” was published in 2008, but the one-time divinity student found his way back to faith in God and man long before that. Rabbi Baruch G. Goldstein spends much of his time speaking to groups like the kids in Kimmerlein’s classes. The nightmare in which he was trapped caused him to question his faith, but he doesn’t blame God anymore.
“God doesn’t do these things,” he said. “It’s people who do these things.”
He believes his appearances will remind youngsters that incomprehensible cruelty comes from separating yourself from others by racism, nationalism and bigotry.
“Racism doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It is infantile to say that a person who looks different from you, or belongs to a certain group, that they’re somehow inferior.”
“There is only one race,” he told students. “The human race … And no one in it should be treated without respect.”