HACKENSACK, N.J. – A group of Hackensack Middle School eighth-graders fell silent as Hanna Wechsler lifted her sleeve and showed them an identification number branded on her arm nearly 75 years ago, after the Nazis invaded her native Poland.
She was five years old at the time.
The students have been studying the history of genocide, the two World Wars – and, of course, the Holocaust.
Three eighth-grade students and a Hackensack High School sophomore were winners at this year’s Siegelbaum Literary and Visual Arts Competition, sponsored by the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance in Suffern, HMS Teacher Heather Mecka said.
The students – who’ve been examining the concepts of identity, freedom, social justice, and how citizens are affected by their government -- will choose to research a specific genocide for a “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” project, Mecka said.
On Tuesday, they got a living history lesson.
Recounting moments she wishes she could forget, Wechsler brought the youngsters back to 1939, three years after she was born, when Adolph Hitler’s troopers invaded Poland – and a happy, carefree childhood turned to horror.
Her family of 14 got permission to hide in a small barn cellar to evade capture but was eventually asked to leave because of suspicious neighbors, Wechsler said.
After her mother risked her life to obtain false papers, Wechsler’s family escaped to Hungary.
They lived a normal life until March 1944, when Hitler’s forces overwhelmed Hungary. German soldiers captured and tortured the entire family and put them on a train to Auschwitz, she said.
Wechsler, 80, of Little Falls, said she was a young child when her mother taught her courage in the face of adversity, risking her own life to keep her children safe. She taught Wechsler to stay quiet and hidden, which saved her in the end.
Therein lies the lesson, said Wechsler.
“You can do anything you put your mind to,” she told the youngsters. “In the face of adversity, one can overcome and prevail.
“If I, after so many years witnessing atrocities, can stay the same, so can you. There is nothing you cannot do!”
Wechsler met her husband and emigrated to the U.S. nearly 40 years ago. She worked at a bra factory until they moved to the suburbs.She attended a Jewish Academy for Hebrew teachers and has been spreading her message ever since then.
Wechsler, who also worked in real estate for 21 years, remains a regular speaker at colleges, museums, synagogues and schools.
At the end of the end of Tuesday's assembly, students presented a bouquet of flowers to Wechsler, who was also thanked by HMS Principal Celso King and the teachers.
“Be kind and know that you can overcome anything,” she told them.