Students hear first hand about life during World War II

Ellsworth Johnson, a Meadow Ridge resident, told students about his time as a flight navigator during World War II. This was part of the Madman as Hero history course at the high school. — Jane Hickok photo

On the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, “a day that lives in infamy,” 81 Joel Barlow High School students heard the stories of local World War II veterans and survivors during a remembrance breakfast.

As part of the Madman as Hero history course at the high school, students interview a person who was alive during World War II for their oral history assignment. After transcribing their interview, they use this for a more extensive research project. Then they invite the subject of  their paper to come speak to their classmates during the remembrance breakfast.

Twenty-two participants, seven from Meadow Ridge, came to speak to the students about their experiences. Some were veterans that served in the Armed Forces, some were survivors of concentration camps, some were females in the service and some just talked about life on the home front during this time period.

Jennifer Desmarais, Humanities Department chair and organizer of the breakfast, said the event has been held annually for more than 15 years.

“The students always ask, ‘Can we talk more?’” she said. “The students hear these people’s stories and see how precious time is. They realize that they are probably the last generation that will hear these stories first hand.”

Students sit at different tables with a couple of the veterans at each and they listen to their stories and then ask questions. After a half hour, the students rotate to another table to hear another person’s experience.

Mary Erlanger, a Meadow Ridge resident, told students about her time as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) communications officer in Washington, D.C.

Lea Mintz, also a Meadow Ridge resident, spoke about her husband who was in the Navy and served in the North Atlantic and Pacific. This was Ms. Mintz’s second year speaking. Last year she was invited by her grandson, she said.

Bob Baumbach and Maury Levesque spoke about being pilots and Ellsworth Johnson spoke to students about being a flight navigator stationed in Italy.

Han and Edith van Oostendorp shared their stories about living in Nazi-occupied Holland and Germany. Mr. van Oostendorp escaped a labor camp in Germany and later became a pilot for the British Air Force. Mrs. van Oostendorp was part of the Jewish underground and helped the Allies. They met after the war in Holland.

Elizabeth Deutsch also told her story of survival. Ms. Deutsch and her entire family were forced to leave their home and board a cattle car train that took them to a Jewish ghetto.

She said after being in the ghetto for a couple of months, the family boarded another cattle car and was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, an extermination camp.

At the death camp, Ms. Deutsch and her sister were separated from the rest of her family. She said she tried to be with her mother but the S.S. officer kept bringing her back to the line with her sister.

Ms. Deutsch later learned that her entire family, besides her and her sister, were killed.

Elizabeth Deutsch told students her story of survival as a Jewish girl in Nazi-Germany and being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a death camp. — Kaitlin Bradshaw photo

After working several different jobs at Auschwitz, Ms. Deutsch and her sister were selected and transferred to a city destroyed by bombs. They had to clean up after the bombings and then later had to work in the salt mines.

As the Germans got word that the allies were coming, Ms. Deutsch and her sister boarded a cattle car and were taken elsewhere, she said. When the train finally stopped, they were told to get off the train and lay down. They had machine guns pointed at them and Allies’ planes were flying over head. Instead of shooting them, the Germans left, she said. “It was May 2, 1945. We were saved at the last minute.”

Ms. Deutsch said that if it wasn’t for her sister, she wouldn’t have made it.

Shaina Mayzler, a senior, was emotional after hearing Ms. Deutsch’s story.

“As a Jewish person, I have a lot more respect [now] for what my family has been through. I have such a higher level of respect and appreciation now,” she said.

Andrianna Papadimitriou, a senior, said that hearing these stories first hand puts it into perspective.

“You read in textbooks the numbers [of people who died], but their stories are more realistic. You feel what they felt,” she said.

Lia Vitale, a senior, said that it is important to realize that in about a decade, “We won’t have the opportunity to talk to people who experienced [World War II] first hand.”

“It was interesting to hear everyone’s side of the story. It was more subjective than a textbook. It was interesting to see the perspective of a veteran and a survivor,” said Michael Caruso, a senior.

Josh Smith, a senior, said “it is nice to put a face to what we’re learning.”

Paul Canada, a senior, said hearing real life experiences has been a positive experience for students.

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