By MARINA WATERS
The Knoxville Civic Auditorium was filled to the brim with middle school and high school students filing in, making sure not to leave a single blue crushed velvet seat empty. On stage sat a single brown, frumpy leather chair where 87-year-old Eva Schloss would bring the crowd to tears and to its feet. It was here that Daniel Boone students got to experience a firsthand account from one of history’s darkest moments—the Holocaust.
Schloss shared with these students her experience as a 15-year-old girl separated from her brother and father and was forced to hide out in Holland with her mother. Betrayed by a Dutch nurse who turned out to be a double agent, Schloss and her family were shipped to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. Russians liberated the camp 10 months after Schloss arrived.
Only Schloss and her mother survived.
Schloss is also known for her ties to Anne Frank, her stepsister and also the author of one of the world’s most well-known diaries of the Holocaust. Before Schloss’ mother wed Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, Schloss and Anne Frank met as young children in Holland. Schloss described for the crowd Frank’s big personality, interest in boys and her love for talking. She even told a story about how Anne once stood at the top of a staircase just to showcase her ability to move her shoulder in and out of place with a huge grin on her face.
The details of the historical figure’s personality along with the horrifying insight of life inside a concentration camp was brought to life for the 21 Boone students sitting in their auditorium seats. The Holocaust studies class, led by Major Sessis at Daniel Boone High School, afforded the students the opportunity to hear from someone who was a part of the event about which they’ve studied.
“It’s a big moment for us to step back as a country and as a nation to think why this happened, why people treated people this way, what drove them towards this hatred, and what we can learn from it and not let it happen again,” Boone student Emily Walker said of Schloss. “I was very honored to be able to witness her to come and to go through such a horrible time in her life—and be able to have the bravery to come up and speak about it.”
This isn’t the only survivor students like Walker have had the chance to hear from and meet; many of these students met Polish Holocaust survivor Shelly Weiner in Nashville along with a lawyer who tries people for genocide and a priest who has travelled throughout Europe in hopes of uncovering mass graves from the era.
For Boone student Cameron Felten, the moment he shook the survivor’s hand is one he won’t forget.
“It was life changing. From other people’s perspective it would just look like a handshake,” Felten explained. “But getting to meet someone that was brave enough to share their experience on something that grim, just something that she had a possibility of not surviving, I felt very, I guess important. It felt very important to do it.”
Weiner hid in barns, tunnels and holes in the ground on different farmers’ properties for more than a year during the Holocaust. The survivor’s experience also served as a new perspective for the students.
“She had to hide, so it was a different experience. It really was,” Holocaust studies student MaryBeth Sain said. “You kind of forget about all the people that didn’t go to these camps and what their everyday life was.”
Sain was also part of the play “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” that was set during the Holocaust. She played a teacher in the play that was put on by the theatre arts class at Daniel Boone. And to get into her role, Sain used her experience meeting Weiner to give her added motivation. She also said the experience gave insight to the Holocaust that most students might not have heard about before.
“It’s a lot of emotional strain to get the character right. Especially with a play like this, we wanted to try as hard as we could to just give some justice to these people. So it took me months to get my character down to where I felt like I could give some type of justice to her,” Sain recalled. “When I heard Mrs. Weiner, just hearing her story made it more real.”
“Sitting in the classroom and learning about it is one thing, but being able to hear a first-person account and be able to just see her emotion, and see her strength and see the pain in her face—yet she had enough confidence and knew how important it was to tell it. Just to be able to experience that really did help me with my character development.”
For English teacher Sharon Phillips, the combination of students learning about the history and details of the historical event from all of these experiences made their work such as “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” that much more meaningful. It’s also served as a life lesson for them as well.
“The students pulled together,” Phillips said. “And the way they did it—I cried every time I watched the rehearsal. Everyone who saw this, they came up to me and said, ‘Man, this play was something so deep. We’re not used to this.’”
“I think this experience has helped them get that cultural viewpoint and that historical viewpoint to be able to promote right here in their school to be kind to each other because of differences. So I think that’s been a key.”
On the overnight trip to see Weiner in Nashville, Phillips said an instance where another kid made a discriminatory comment about another student came about. For the instructor, she felt the lessons the students could learn from the Holocaust are important in this day in age.
“That really made me think these kids need to be exposed to this (lesson from the Holocaust), Phillips said. “Just some comments another student made about someone’s difference that really bothered me. And I thought, ‘There’s a purpose. This young man, maybe when he goes to this event, this will help him.’”
From hearing from not one but two Holocaust survivors to detailing their lives on the stage at Daniel Boone High School, these students have not only learned about this historical happening, but they’re also determined to remember what happened and the weight the event still carries.
“It’s a big thing for them (the students who heard Schloss speak). There aren’t many holocaust survivors anymore,” Walker said. “Now they’re dying off unfortunately and once they’re gone, if this next generation doesn’t pass on the story, we can’t forget and we never should forget. We need to carry on and pass it forward.”