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Holocaust survivor describes life in Nazi death camp

by Jeff Munson

To today’s typical 13-year old, the Holocaust during World War II may seem like ancient history, something that happened a long time ago that has no real effect on their lives, let alone their futures.

Carson Valley Middle School students were told to think again Monday as they heard a gripping account of life in Nazi Germany death camps from a Holocaust survivor.

“In many ways, I was a lot like you,” Mel Mermelstein, founder of the Auschwitz Study Foundation in Huntington Beach, Calif., told about 200 9th graders.

“I had friends and thought about the future,” he told them. “I was a boy who loved his family and thought of nothing more than wanting to be near them for the rest of my life.”

But that all changed in the spring of 1945 when Mel, then 17, his parents, a brother and two sisters were seized from their home in Czechoslovakia and thrown into an Auschwitz death camp.

Mermelstein’s presentation coincides with CVMS English teacher Susan Van Alyne’s survey of World War II and Nazi Germany. Students are reading accounts of Adolph Hitler’s reign of terror, when more than 6 million Jews were slaughtered.

Now 75, Mermelstein travels to schools across the country to share his story and to encourage young people to “never forget the horrors of what happened in very recent times.”

For more than a year, Mermelstein was held as a prisoner and slave in a concentration camp, where he was starved, forced to hammer at rocks and sleep on floors with hundreds of other prisoners.

“We were no longer human. We didn’t count. To them we were less than animals,” he told the students. “The death camps were built with one purpose: to kill the Jewish people.”

The scars of the war are not only vivid in Mermelstein’s memory. His left arm bears a small tattoo of the number 4685, which was assigned to him by the Nazis.

The concentration camp he lived in was occupied by more than 2,000 men, mostly Jews. Women and the elderly were killed as soon as they were captured, which was the case with his mother and two sisters, he told the students.

“It was a time when there was no hope. We were literally taken from our homes and driven to places worse than any human could ever imagine,” he said.

His father and brother were taken to camp and worked until they were so malnourished that they couldn’t move. They too were thrown in a gas chamber.

“To call it a slave camp would be wrong,” Mermelstein said. “We would have made the best slaves had they fed us. But that’s not what they wanted. They wanted to reduce us. To dehumanize us.”

At the end of the war, Mel was the only survivor of his family. German Nazis had killed his mother and sisters in a gas chamber, and his father and brother were nearly worked to death in a slave labor camp, gassed and burned.

When the war ended and Auschwitz was liberated, Mermelstein, who stands less than 6 feet tall, said he weighed 65 pounds. It took three months of intensive care by international aid workers before he could leave the place where hundreds of thousands were put to death.

When he returned to his homeland, weighing 120 pounds, he recalled how he lived through an intense and agonizing period of shock.

“My family was gone. I had no one. I was alone,” he said.

Subsequently, Mermelstein and other Jews immigrated to the United States, leaving their war-torn countries to start new lives.

For Mermelstein, his destiny would be to fulfill the wishes of his father, who said to him as the family was rounded up by the Nazis to let others “never forget.”

“My father made me make a promise that if I was to live through this inferno, that I was a witness to the world. I was to let them know,” he said.

The Auschwitz Study Foundation successfully brought the first legal case to the United States that officially recognized the Holocaust in 1980. In the case, Mermelstein sued a group of Nazi historians who claimed the Holocaust didn’t happen.

It was the subject of a Ted Turner-produced movie, “Never Forget” that starred Leonard Nimoy. Students saw a 20-minute version of the story.

During a question-and-answer session, about a dozen students asked Mermelstein about the events in his life.

Ninth grader Jessie Thomas, who was visibly enthralled with Mermelstein’s story, asked if he had given up hope in the concentration camp.

“The answer is yes,” Mermelstein said. “I wanted to accept death as my fate. I believed it. It didn’t make sense then. Day after day, we saw the pain and saw the suffering and wondered why.”

But there was a reason he survived, he told the students. And that is to tell the story.

“This can never happen again, providing that you never allow it to happen,” he said.

Mermelstein discouraged the students from immersing themselves in Nazi Germany history because it carries so much emotional weight. Instead, Mermelstein encouraged students to read history books on the Holocaust, “little by little,” to fully understand the impact.

As teen-agers and young adults, Mermelstein encouraged them to follow their hearts, but to never forget history, especially the Holocaust.

“For me, as I grow older, I want to believe that this will never happen again,” Mermelstein told the students. “But as a realist, I’ll never rule it out. Yes, indeed, it can happen again. But only you can prevent it from happening.”