Holocaust victim helps students understand
Jerry Meents was born in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1930. Because his mother was Catholic and his father was Jewish, he was not considered a part of the Jewish faith. But, Meents said, he never felt like an outsider.
"Maybe it was my looks, with my dark hair and brown eyes, but for some reason, I was accepted," Meents said.
Those same characteristics that welcomed him into the Jewish community, also almost had him condemned to a concentration camp.
As Meents explained his story, seven ninth-grade students from Park City Academy sat captivated by his account of the hardships and unthinkable events that he and his family and his neighbors experienced.
"It’s so valuable to meet living history while it’s still available to us," Susan Radtke, PCA community outreach director, said.
Having Meents come in to speak with students is part of PCA’s new multicultural initiative. "This year, we wanted to redouble our commitment to teaching about diversity at Park City Academy," Radtke said.
Part of that initiative is seeking out these opportunities to have speakers come to school and interact with students, as well as taking students outside of school to experience the world, Radtke said.
Meents, who has done a lot of outreach, ended up in Ogden, Utah, by accident about 50 years ago.
"I get a lot of good reactions," Meents said, "especially from the younger kids. But sometimes with teenagers, you have to pull the questions out of them."
Meents began his discussion with PCA ninth-graders by telling them that they could ask questions anytime. "But there’s just one thing, you have to speak up because I have these funny things in my ears," he joked, pointing to his hearing aids.
Here is some of his engrossing tale:
In 1940, when Meents was 10 years old, Germany invaded Holland, and for the next five years, his life was turned upside down.
"The Germans started by taking our rights away, one by one," he said. "It started with silly things like ‘you can’t go fishing’ or ‘you can’t go to the park.’" And then Jews couldn’t go to the grocery store during the day, and then they weren’t allowed to work for non-Jewish people or go to non-Jewish physicians.
And then, slowly but surely, the roundups – "razzia" in German – began. "They went from apartment to apartment, and you could only take one suitcase with you," Meents said.
He described how Amsterdam is said to be the Venice of the North because of its abundance of canals. "They would open up all the bridges or put guards at them so that no one could leave," he said.
Meents, however, did not live near water, so the German troops simply surrounded his neighborhood. When the police entered his family’s apartment, his father, who was 100-percent Jewish, was saved by hiding behind the living room door.
One of the "traitors" – Dutch police who had joined German forces – looked at Meents and assumed he was a full-blooded Jew. As Meents was being taken away, his grandfather, who spoke a little German, talked to the police and showed them his papers. Meents was set free.
"I got lucky, simple as that," he said. "Because once they got you, it was not easy to get out of their hands."
Meents explained to the students about different kinds of concentration camps. There were enslavement camps and execution camps, he said, and there were camps where they performed experiments. Auschwitz was both an execution and an enslavement camp, while Sobibor, which is where more than half of his family and most of his neighbors died, was an execution camp.
It took three days and three nights to get to Sobibor from Holland, he said. The Jews were moved in small cattle cars where people would freeze to death in the winter, and because of intense humidity, go crazy from heat in the summer.
In Sobibor, Meents explained, a German officer dressed in a white coat would stand on a chair to greet arrivals. He would tell the Jews to not believe what they had heard, that they were not going to be killed. The officer said they would be put to work, but first they had to make sure no one had lice.
"Some people applauded," Meents said. "Because they thought they were not going to be killed. Some people even sang going into the showers." The showers were gas chambers, and in 20 minutes, everyone inside was dead.
Meents went on to talk about the uprising that occurred at Sobibor and what remains of the camp today. Everything at Sobibor was destroyed by the Germans after the uprising, he said, and all that is left is a large pile of human ash, bits of bone surrounding old pits where bodies were burned, and a memorial wall in honor of Sobibor’s victims.
Meents went on to talk about his friend whose was injected with gasoline by Nazis. He survived those horrific experiments, and immigrated to the U.S. where doctors were amazed by the horrible condition of his heart.
Meents recalled when northern Holland’s food supply was cut off and all they had to eat were dogs, cats and tulip bulbs. Bread was made with sawdust. There was no electricity, so in order to heat their homes, people would dismantle abandoned Jewish apartments scrounging for wood to burn.
"I became a thief," he said, telling stories of how he sold fruit on the black market, stole 13 loaves of bread for his family, and was thrown in jail for selling a flashlight on the black market.
"People would trade anything for food – jewelry, antiques," Meents said. He asked the students to think about when they come home from school and are hungry and go to have a snack. "You have no idea what hunger is," he said. "It’s a pain that never goes away."
Meents pulled out the Jewish star he was made to wear, which he found purely by chance after the war. "It is the only thing that I have left," he said. "I want to give it to one of my children someday."
Meents’ desire for knowledge about the Holocaust was ignited after he read the book "Too Stubborn to Die," by Cato Jaramillo, and found it to be full of mistakes. He decided to uncover the truth for himself. Meents visited Germany, went to the concentration camps, studied documents, and talked with survivors.
And he continues to tell his story and theirs through his outreach efforts.
Ninth-grader Eliza Rothman said she knew a little about the Holocaust before Meents came to speak, "but it is nice to get to know the details," she said, "especially since I’m also Jewish."
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," classmate Cole Sax said, "to meet someone who has that much knowledge."
What stood out for another student, was that there are so few Holocaust survivors left, and pretty soon, no one will be able to experience this oral history firsthand.
"We want our students to be able to meet people and get to know them on a personal level," Radtke said.
For ninth-grader Leah Corey, Meents gave her a much deeper understanding of the Holocaust. "It made it a lot more realistic for me," she said.
Meents was 14 years old when the war ended, but for him, the Holocaust’s gruesome reality will forever be engrained in his mind. "Sometimes having a good memory is a curse," he told the students.
He said he hopes through his talks, kids will have a better understanding of the Holocaust, to ensure that future generations prevent an atrocity like that from ever occurring again.
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