Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Werner Coppel, A Holocaust Survivor

Today one of the student’s mother came in to talk about her son. This is what she told my MT, “Oh! You’re cute! I didn’t know you’d be so cute.” Hahaha

We also had the pleasure of hearing from a Holocaust survivor. His name is Werner Coppel. He spoke in our auditorium which made it less homey and welcoming. My MT and I were really disappointed in how the students behaved. Some were sleeping and some were talking. I wish they would have taken it more seriously. I thought it was amazing, but unfortunately I was distracted by disrespectful questions. While he spoke I took notes on everything for two reasons. One reason was because I was just so interested in what he had to say. The second reason was because one day I’ll be teaching and Holocaust survivors will no long be alive to speak to my students, so I want to be able to give a real life account to them. His story is below.

Fifty-seven years ago he actually went to the high school I’m at 3 nights a week to take citizenship classes. He was born in Germany in 1925. His dad fought for Germany during WWI and was taken as a POW in France. Coppel has a brother and grew up in the middle class. In 1933 he was 7 years old when the capital changed. He said it didn’t affect him much because what 7 year old is concerned about what happens in the far away capital of Berlin.

In 1935 the annual convention declared the Nuremburg laws. He described them as “the most discriminating laws.” One of the laws said that all Jewish children had to be taken out of public schools. A parochial school was developed in his town. They had to walk about 25-30 minutes to his school, past buildings, playgrounds, etc. that would have signs on the outside saying things like “Jews not welcome” “Jews and dogs keep out.” The Germans did not protest to these discriminatory signs. In 1938 he said he heard German soldiers singing about how good life will be when all the Jews were killed. Again, the Germans did not protest to the singing.

On November 9, 1938 he was 13 years old. This was Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. His synagogue was bruned down. Then following the day men ages 16-60 were put into concentration camps.
Werner was told to apply for a Jewish center in Berlin. In March 1940, at 15, he joined the center. They were trained for one day building a center home in Palestine, now Israel. 1940 was a relatively happy year, but mostly because 2 teachers protected them from the news outside. In 1941 the training center was closed and the boys and girls were transferred to concentration camps.

Going back, in 1936 a law was passed that every Jew carrying an identity card had to put a “J” on it which stood for Jude, or Jew in German. In 1940 a law was passed that every Jew ages 6 and older had to wear a yellow star. The word Jude was put in the center in writing that looked like Hebrew, which was a discriminatory act on the side of the Germans.

At one point he was able to leave the concentration camp to visit his family. In December 1940 he saw his mother, father, and brother for the last time. He went back to the labor camp where he was a 130 lb lumberjack. On April 8, 1943 all the Jews at the concentration camp were arrested and put into protective custody.

He finally arrived at Auschwitz and after the yelling, screaming, crying the first words he heard was “Women and children to the left.” Out of the 1100 people he arrived with on the first day, 557 were gassed and burned. He was sent to leave all his clothes and was only to keep his belts and shoes. He was shaven and was given his identification number tattoo, which has disappeared from the sun, but he says he still uses it as a PIN. He and the others were chased to different barracks. Every so often he and the others would have to appear naked in front of a non-commissioned SS officer who would decide if they lived or died.
He did slave labor in a very large company which made rubber. In August 1944 200 B-24s, the largest bomber of WWII belonging to the Americans, came up from Italy and started bombing Auschwitz. Instead of bombing the killing and gas centers they bombed the factories. If the Americans would have bombed the killing centers then countless numbers would have probably been saved.

He was part of the death march which Elie Wiesel, the author of the book Night, was on. The marched/ran from Auschwitz to Gleiwitz. When he arrived at Gleiwitz he saw 6 truckloads of dead people who were too weak to work and mercy shot in the back of the neck. Later they were packed into train cars like sardines. They were packed in so much that if they died they weren’t able to fall down. When they arrived Buchenwald there was a chance for him to escape. He looked both ways to see if anyone was watching him and escaped with two others. They hid for several days and eventually got behind the Russian lines and were freed. He was free at 19.
He has been talking to schools and groups for about 35 years. He started talking in the mid-70s when a man who was some kind of German ambassador to something in Cincinnati (I didn’t quite catch who the man was) posted an article in the newspaper that said the Diary of Anne Frank was a hoax and the Holocaust never happened.
He told his students that he remembered a time when Jews weren’t hired in Cincinnati and blacks were not allowed into Coney Island. He said that Jews and blacks were kept from participating in a lot of things in the United States. The advice he gave was that we have to rise up against hate and prejudice.
At this point his phone was ringing. It was his grandson in Chicago. He answered the phone and within 5 seconds says, “Hello, I will talk to you later.” The students thought it was hilarious. It was pretty funny. Then the floor was open to student questions.

“When you finally escaped why didn’t you look for your family?”
He started looking for his family in the 60s when it was clearer where to look. There was a police report that said a transport of Jews from his town had been turned over to the Latvian SS (the Germans had plenty of help, especially from Eastern Europe). About 15 years ago he accidentally ran into a man who went to the same parochial school and whose family was on the same transport. He said that those who couldn’t walk, like Coppel’s father from his injury in WWI, were taken into the woods in trucks that had the exhaust of the truck turned into the van. His research also showed him that his mother and brother were taken from a ghetto to Auschwitz in November 1943.

“Why didn’t your family leave Germany?”
Jews weren’t allowed to leave Germany because the borders were closed in every country, except China. About 30,000 went to China and were kept in a ghetto by the Japanese, but they were saved. Those were the people who had a lot of money.

“Why wasn’t there more fighting back?”
The Germans were masters of deception and psychology. Plus, they weren’t allowed to have weapons. There really is no such thing as a write to bear arms in countries outside of the U.S.
“What kept you going?”
Training in 1940 to build a home in Palestine was the goal which kept him going.

“Why didn’t you bring any other people with you when you escaped?”
Escaping was strictly instinctive. He just ran.

“What did you do for ‘fun’?”
There was no logic when you were hungry and pushed. They were constantly busy. There was no time to have ‘fun’.

“What did it feel like to finally eat food?”
While he was hiding he knew the front was coming because it was really noisy. When he finally escaped he saw a farm with farmers listening to a British station. They approached and the farmer made them potato pancakes. (I didn’t catch the rest because I was watching the students).
His wife was also a nurse who fed them. She slowly started feeding them because many of the survivors died from eating too much of the wrong thing.

“Was there ever a time you felt like giving up?”
He was trained to be a soldier and pioneer, which meant he was trained not to give up. However, the other people were there and they all helped each other to get to the point of giving up.

“How did the Holocaust affect how you raised your family?”
He raised them not to walk away from hate or prejudice. He also raised them to treat others better than they would want to be treated.

Other points that don’t have specific questions: He was 90 lbs when he finally left. He said that even today there are still instances he has to use self control so not to blow up.

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