I am a child of the Holocaust, whose life was shattered when I was a toddler. It was shattered by a rock flying through the window of our dining room on a Friday night, right after my father blessed us, and my mother lit the Shabbat candles. I had five siblings, and I was the youngest.
My early life in the town of Piestany, a spa town in Czechoslovakia, was sheltered and wonderful. We were Orthodox and lived a quiet middle-class life in a quiet town, until the anti-Semitic propaganda began, and my older brothers would come home from school with bloodied noses, because the fascist bullies would jump them.
My father was bullied and harassed on the trains he had to ride for his business. Soon after that, things got worse, and we had to flee our home, living on false papers until we were caught. Four of us were in school when the Hlinka guards came and took my parents and two older siblings away. The Jewish Rescue Committee spirited us out of school and into hiding, but a few days later, as a 5-year-old holding my 10-year-old brother’s hand, I watched from a distance when my parents and my brother and sister were shoved into a cattle train to Auschwitz. And then my own journey through the inferno began and was eased by the kindness of strangers, in Budapest, who adopted me and treated me like their own child.
And still, even in unoccupied Budapest, where you might expect some compassion from your peers, I was bullied in school by a classmate because I was new and didn’t speak Hungarian. She turned out to be my own cousin. After more years of turmoil and education in England and Israel, I met my first husband and came to America, built a family and then learned how to cope as a widow with three children. I remarried, and you can say I am living happily ever after. But I also have a mission.
I read about the history of the Holocaust and realized that what happened to my family began years before the actual bullying and murders began. It began with words, with lies about the Jewish people, turning us into “other” and designed to make people be afraid of us and hate us. We were accused of everything from sexual perversions to controlling the world. Everywhere we went, we were afraid.
At my daughter’s urging, I wrote my book, “A Candle in the Heart,” about my experiences. I am using it to teach young people not to hate each other, to teach them about the dangers of bullies, of being aware of what truth is, of how they need to understand the past to prepare for a better future.
I often wondered whether those of us who teach about the Holocaust have an effect on the students, an effect that moves them to act in the face of evil. And then, in February, the shooting in Parkland, Fla., took place, and I learned, to my shock, that the lessons we teach do make a difference.
I did not know until weeks after the shooting that the first class targeted was the Holocaust education class, one the school had been teaching for 17 years. I learned that the shooter had swastikas etched on the magazines that fed his weapon. He was in that class. He was a bully with a gun who started by murdering two classmates, wounding six and then went on to kill 15 more people and wound many more.
I also know the students who came out of that classroom and began #Neveragain as a movement believe that they can convince voters to move politicians to guarantee safety in American classrooms. They believe it is the right thing to do. They are speaking out and calling attention to a situation that costs countless students their lives. As one student noted at their march in Washington, D.C., “I was in my Holocaust class learning about mass murder, and then I was in the middle of one.”
Despite the adult bullies who have called them fakers, liars and traitors, despite the very real death threats they get, they continue to act on their beliefs. They don’t advocate violence. They don’t incite riots. They speak their truth to power, and no Holocaust survivor can ask for more than that from their “students.”
Judith Alter Kallman, the author of the memoir “A Candle in the Heart,” lives in Greenwich, CT.