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BMS Students Learn about the Holocaust from a Survivor

Jan 02, 2018 06:00AM ● By David Dunbar

Holocaust survivor Janet Applefield

story & photo by Dave Dunbar, Contributing Writer

Nearly 200 students crowded into the auditorium of the Bellingham Middle School (BMS) recently to hear a 50-minute lecture from a Holocaust survivor. These 12- and 13-year-old students sat in rapt attention as Janet Applefield described growing up in war-torn Poland during the Nazi occupation. And you could have heard a pin drop.

Applefield, who is Jewish, spoke in vivid detail about the early years of her life and her efforts to escape the ever-present threat of being discovered by Nazis. Her grandfather managed to save photographs of family and friends, and she shared some with her young audience.

Germany invaded Poland during World War II. Jews, because they did not fit into the new “master race,” were executed. By the end of the war, six million had been killed.  

Applefield, who grew up in Poland, recalled that, one day, there was a “selection.” Nazi officers in their town “decided who would live and who would die.” Those “selected” were packed into box cars and shipped off by train. Many died in transit (there was standing room only in the cars, and poison had been spread on the floor). Those who finished the five-day trip were either assigned to hard labor or “gassed,” according to Applefield.

Kids in her audience were paying close attention; seventh-grade teacher Geoffrey Favakeh explained: “There was a lot of preparation with the students beforehand, but overall, we have a terrific and respectful group of students. They had participated in a two-day lesson led by me and fellow geography teacher Robert Marzilli. They learned of the horrors of the event, and when they were informed that a survivor was going to speak to them about it, they got increasingly excited.”

As part of the lesson they also prepared questions that they were hopeful to have answered. The preparation and their genuine excitement made it very easy to keep the room attentive and respectful. Of course, the fact that the story being presented was captivating and moving played the biggest role, for it was clear that students wanted to learn and to hear what Janet had to say.

At age seven, Applefield found herself alone and wandering the streets. Her mother had been killed and her father was missing. She spent her time hiding from the Gestapo until being taken in by a cousin. They went to live on a farm. “I didn’t understand war then,” she said.  “Where did everybody go?”

From the farm, she went to a refugee center and then to an orphanage.  Eventually, at age 12, she reunited with her father and emigrated to New Jersey. She married at age 19, went on to college and finished with a Master’s degree in social work. She now has three grown children and five grandchildren and lives in Sharon, MA.

“When I’m gone, they will continue to tell my story,” she said. Then, addressing her Middle School audience, she asked, “How many of you will tell my story?” Dozens of hands shot into the air.

“Think about the choices you make,” she told the students. “The smallest act of kindness will have a ripple effect.”

Then, questions from the audience:

“What can I do to make the world a better place?” asked one. “Stand up to bullying, get to know a new student, be kind,” was her answer.

“What did you do for entertainment when you were at the farm?” asked another. “We climbed trees, rode the tractor and played outside” was the reply.

“Any regrets?”  “Yes,” replied Ms. Applefield, “not talking enough about my experience—it was just too hard to hear.” And she said she regrets not asking her father more questions, not having “deeper conversations.”

Applefield, who was born in the summer of 1935, was asked if she knew other survivors of the Holocaust. “Only a few; most are deceased,” she said.

She delivers 35-40 speeches each year, and had just returned from a speaking engagement in England to address the students at BMS (her fourth annual visit).

“I am Jewish,” said Mr. Favakeh, the geography teacher, and he remembers that years ago Holocaust survivors would be invited to his temple to speak. “It has been such a pleasure, now as a teacher, to be able to do the same thing for my students and continue to teach/remind students of just how horrific this event was, but how people can ultimately choose good over evil.”

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