Seventh grade students at Eisenhower Middle School got to witness a piece of history Friday as they met Joseph and Magda Ungerleider, two Holocaust survivors who currently reside in Rockaway, NJ.
“Principal Dominick Miller shared with the English/Language Arts teachers this opportunity as he thought it was a perfect connection to the curriculum,” shared Kimberly Farina, ELA Teacher at the school.
EMS Students Hear message from Holocaust Survivors
Adding, “The seventh grade students at EMS are currently in the Human Resiliency unit. They are reading The Diary of Anne Frank and completing multiple activities that educate the students on how to become upstanding citizens.”
For over an hour, students listened intently to the point where you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as Mr. Ungerleider gave an intimate account of what he experienced as a young man during World War II.
To begin the program, Mr. Ungerleider read a statement in regards to remembrance and had two students, Lori Horta and Jack Demetris up on stage with them to bear witness and light the Yahrzeit Memorial Candle. “Take what you hear today to teach the younger generations so that this never happens again.”
Mr. Ungerleider shared that it would be 74 years on March 19th since Germany occupied Hungary. As a young man of just 17, he and his friends were waiting to go out for an afternoon dance and have a good time when they heard the regimented noise of German troops making their way into town blaring on megaphones for everyone to return to their homes and await further instruction.
In the coming days, he and his family were advised that all Jewish people would not be allowed out of their homes until after 11 a.m., until all non-Jewish people finished their shopping. The yellow stars came soon after to identify them as Jewish people.
Mr. Ungerleider was one of many males from his town who ranged in age from 15-50 who were gathered in the town square to be told to march for the next two to two and a half days to Romania. The men were instilled in labor camps to guard and protect the oil deposit and rail lines in this area in case of bombings.
“The bombs came and we had to fix the rail line when bombed. More bombings came and we were told to retreat. The Torda Bridge we crossed on the way there was bombed out. The Germans went door to door to get flat boats and planks to carry trucks across during the retreat. We walked for days until we reached a village. It was a ghost village. We were told to march again. We heard endless rumblings and shootings and realized it was the sound of guns.”
He went on to say, “We were walking outside the village near a cemetery and a friend on either side of me were both shot dead. Bullets were ricocheting off tombstones. You become numb when this happens. You don’t know what’s happening around you. You just have to keep going.”
Mr. Ungerleider and others marched to Budapest, Hungary’s capital. He knew his sister lived there. He found the way to her house and she let him in. It was the first night in a long time he was able to sleep on a coach with a roof over his head.
The safety and security of his sister’s home did not last more than then that. On numerous occasions, Mr. Ungerleider and the others were told to form columns. At one such column, the SS Soldier walked behind the column and shot every tenth person dead. Other occasions, Mr. Ungerleider was beaten to a pulp. When he was caught again, he was put into a brick kiln with no food, no bathroom, and breathing in 10-12 inches of dust.
Mr. Ungerleider shared a story about Raoul Wallenberg, a man who came from a wealthy Swedish family. He asked the Swedish government to go to Hungary to issue visas to Hungarian Jews so they would be protected by the Swedish crown. Mr. Ungerleider was one of those fortunate individuals who received those papers, but that hope was short lived. Not long after, a German soldier approached him and Mr. Ungerleider told him of his protective papers, the German soldier tore them up and told him he wasn’t going anywhere.
The ghettos where Mr. Ungerleider stayed at different times had deplorable conditions. Head lice was rampant and bodies were piling up. “Winter drew closer and closer, people who died under normal circumstances couldn’t be buried. They were put out into the street. We were told to collect the bodies and put them in an empty store. We stacked them to the ceiling.”
Mr. Ungerleider was liberated in January 1945. He walked home to his birthplace from Budapest. There was nothing left of his home when he returned. He hung around for a while before leaving Hungary as he couldn’t live there among those people anymore. He went to Germany and was assigned and old German tent. He tried coming to America but couldn’t so he went to Australia instead.
He lived there for five years and worked at a shoe store. One day, he thought he saw his mother and called out to her to only find out it wasn’t her. His mother had been killed in Auschwitz during the war.
Mrs. Ungerleider, his wife, also a Holocaust survivor had a different story to share. Mr. Ungerleider shared it for her saying, “In the spring of 1944, the Germans came to where she lived, knocked on the door, was told to pack light and head to the railroad station. The train headed from village to village, town to town, until they had enough people to fill in the wagons. Some wagons had 60-70 people, no bathroom, only a bucket. People went mad, berserk. They took the people’s belts off to restrain them so not to hurt others. Pregnant ladies and children rode for two days before arriving at Auschwitz.”
When they arrived, they were told to line up. The old, sick, weak, or infirmed were sent to the gas chambers. The other half, like Mrs. Ungerleider were led into the concentration camp where she and others were experimented on by Joseph Mengele. Mengele was in charge and determined who lived and who died.
“The first time Joseph Mengele looked at Mrs. Ungerleider and her sister, they were told to go to one side. Mengele had an obsession. He couldn’t understand why people were different. He did all his research on his own without any anesthesia.”
“Mrs. Ungerleider spent much of her time in the camp cleaning bomb shells with mustard gas. Their hair and teeth turning yellow and rotting away.”
“We must never let this happen again! What people did to people just because of religion, tell you to leave your house, bed, pillow, dreams and become a number, humans to them were disposable. This should never happen again!”
After sharing their stories, Mr. Ungerleider encouraged the students to ask them questions saying, “There are no stupid questions. Don’t go home tonight having not asked them. You are now one of the witnesses to six billion to not forget what you are witnessing today.”
Close to thirty questions were asked by the students in the remaining time. Students came prepared as many had researched the Holocaust by completing and creating a WebQuest in class, read numerous articles, and participated in multiple learning centers dealing with the Holocaust.
Questions ranged from personal ones like Mr. Ungerleider’s birthday, age, whether or not they had pets, grandchildren, and how the two met.
Mr. Ungerleider shared that once he arrived in America, in New York around the age of 28, he met up with a friend of his. “I told him I didn’t know about America. Everything here was new. He told me I’d get used to it and there wasn’t any going back. He then gave me a phone number to call. It was Mrs. Ungerleider. A week from today we will be married 60 years.”
Another question poised by a student asked if the couple had any grandchildren. Mr. Ungerleider replied sharing that they had five grandchildren. Adding how difficult it was for them to conceive seeing as Mrs. Ungerleider was infected and was told they would never be able to have children.”
As a follow up to that question, one student asked if it was difficult to share their story with their family. Mr. Ungerleider said, “Yes, especially when our kids were born. We were quiet and never spoke about it. We didn’t want our kids to have the same stigma. As time went by, our kids wanted to know so we told them.”
Other questions asked by students included thoughts, feelings, and emotions. One student asked if either one kept a journal or wrote about their experience. Mr. Ungerleider shared that he had written a book entitled “Weed in the Sand” about his experiences during this time.
Another student asked, “If you met a Nazi today, would you still have anything against them?” Mr. Ungerleider said that if he knows someone is German, he calculates the age and if as old as himself, he doesn’t trust them. “It’s always in the back of your mind.”
Wrapping up the morning, Mr. Ungerleider shared an important message with the students stating, “Be kind to each other, listen, go to your teachers, counselors, they are your friends and are dedicated people. Remember never again!”
ELA Teacher Kimberly Farina added, “Love is kind, patient, and hardworking. It’s easy to jump on the hate bandwagon. Remember, this all started with name calling and people not saying anything. Don’t jump on that bandwagon. You are the last generation to hear or meet Holocaust survivors. Your kids won’t have a chance. I hope you took in everything you heard and learn from it so it doesn’t end here.”
Following the assembly, three students, Leah Bauder, Kendall Fehsal, and Mariana Leal, followed up with the Ungerleiders to ask additional questions to write an article for the middle school newspaper, The Grapevine. Stephanie Park, a diligent seventh grader, filmed the assembly to share with future classes.
These guests were brought to the school through the connection of a parent, Gheri Dasappan who is also the co-PTO president at EMS. Dasappan works with Amada Senior Care out of Morristown, NJ. She shared, “It brought me great joy to be able to share the Ungerleider’s story with the seventh graders. I was amazed at the pin drop silence the kids displayed. If this story resonated with one student, then it would be quite an accomplishment!”
Through networking within her field, Dasappan met Narrin Schwartz from The Twenty Fifth Hour Concierge. He provided the transportation to get the Ungerleider’s to the school.
Schwartz provides services to seniors with transportation with errands, doctor’s appointments, etc. Dasappan noted that Schwartz donated his time on Friday to bring the Ungerleider’s to the school. He stayed the whole time and even helped as “kid-interpreter” during the event, and then brought them home. “The Ungerleider’s are his clients and if it were not for him, I would never have had the strong connection to share this story with EMS.”
PHOTOS ATTACHED (courtesy of Roxbury Public Schools)
- Kendall Fehsal, Mariana Leal, Christian Hunter, Mr. and Mrs. Ungerleider
- Mr and Mrs Ungerleider with Dasappan and Schwartz
- Dasappan introduces the Ungerleiders
- Lori and Jack are witnesses to the rememberance
- The Grapevine interview the Ungerleiders
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