When Bella was 12 years old and Louis was about 17, the war began.
They were forced to work in labor camps and live in ghettos. They were separated from their families and struggled to survive on the feeble rations of food they were given.
Over time, they felt nothing except the ominous touch of death. As they lost hope, nothing seemed to mattered, until all at once — they were rescued.
Although Bella and Louis, both of Poland, did not know each other during the war, they both were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. And even though the war took almost everything from them, they would go on, start again and ensure their memories live on.
Amy Rutenberg, an American history assistant professor at Iowa State University, and Sarah Bender Miller, a former academic adviser at Iowa State University, both of whom are practicing Jews, spoke to Aleasha Bibler’s middle school social studies class at Kuemper Catholic School System Nov. 18 about Jewish religion and culture as well as the history of the Holocaust.
Bibler’s class is beginning to study the Holocaust, so to give her students background on the Jewish religion as well as some first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust, she reached out Rutenberg and Bender Miller with hopes they would speak to the class and provide some background on their faith.
“The speakers allowed us to learn about Judaism before we talked about the rise of antisemitism and the Holocaust, but also gave us examples of people’s experiences through the stories of Sarah (Bender Miller’s) grandparents, who both survived the Holocaust.”
Rutenberg first spoke to the class about different religions. Regardless of how different two religions may be, every religion has a few core principles and rituals that define it, she said.
“All religions also have cultural practices that come with them,” she said. “Those cultural practices come from where we live — from the people around us, from our ethnic heritage, from where our families were originally from, the languages we speak, the foods that we eat or the songs we sing.”
There are many differences between Judaism and Christianity, as well as many similarities, Rutenberg said. Jews follow the Torah, Rutenberg explained, and even though the name may be different, Christians do too, she said.
“You all are familiar with the Torah, whether you realize it or not, because Christianity has the Old Testament and the New Testament,” she said.
During the talk, Bender Miller put the Holocaust and its background in perspective for students. She told them about her grandparents, Bella and Louis, who both had very different ways of practicing Judaism — but to the Nazis, it was all the same.
Bender Miller spoke about who her grandparents were before the war, during the Holocaust and afterwards, when they met each other. Many of the surviving pictures of her grandparents were taken after the war, because everything they had prior was destroyed, she said. Regardless of when the photo was taken, Bender Miller wanted the students to see her grandparents — the people she knew and loved.
“I show you this picture because I think it is very important for you to understand as you are studying about the Holocaust, you’re going to see a lot of pictures, and a lot of those are going to look really old,” she said. “They are going to be in black and white, and they’re going to look grainy, and it’s very easy to look at those and think, ‘That was a long time ago. That was far away, and that doesn’t have anything to do with me or the people that live here today.’ These are my grandparents. I knew them, I lived with them, and many of you know your grandparents. I think it’s very important to understand they lived even during your lifetime, and that is really significant.”
Bibler said the talk allowed students to understand more about a religion that is different from their own and to learn that it is important to respect it just the same. What the event highlighted is the importance of continuing to speak about the Holocaust and the way it really happened, while making sure nothing is filtered or left out, Bibler said.
“Our students seem to really understand how important these events are to learn about,” Bibler said. “Listening to speakers with first-hand knowledge allows us to realize that the Holocaust really wasn’t that long ago, and the effects of the Holocaust still linger in our society and around the world.”