Stanlee Stahl, Dr. Eric Wellisch, and Dr. Teri Nadler-Thorz aren’t classroom teachers, but these three Western North Carolinians make it their work to educate people about the Holocaust — to help them learn and, above all, to remember. January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year, it’s also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest death camp established by the Nazis during World War II.
On a Rescue Mission
Stanlee Stahl spends as much time at her Black Mountain home as she can, although her current role as executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) keeps her professionally tethered to New York and New Jersey. The foundation provides monthly financial assistance to elderly non-Jews in need who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, and strives to preserve the legacy and memory of these righteous gentiles — a title given by the state of Israel — through teacher training.
“These rescuers are still alive, and they’re role models for young people,” Stahl says. To ensure students know rescuers’ stories, JFR runs a national Holocaust education program based out of Columbia University in New York City. Teachers can attend trainings across the country at the foundation’s Centers of Excellence (the closest center to WNC is the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust in the city of Columbia).
Most teachers attending trainings, Stahl notes, haven’t taught rescue history to their students. But they leave knowing there are ways to weave the legacy of rescuers into a Holocaust unit of study. The rescuers’ courage, compassion, moral leadership, and ingenuity are the focus of a classroom poster set created by the foundation. Posters display and define these meaningful character traits, then share the stories of two rescuers that exemplify those qualities. “They are living heroes,” says Stahl.
From Survivor to Educator
When Dr. Eric Wellisch, who has lived in Asheville for 50 years, speaks to local students, he echoes the message of the JFR’s posters. He speaks to middle and high schoolers through UNCA’s Center for Diversity Education, and shares what happened to him when he was getting ready to finish high school as valedictorian in the spring of 1938: Adolf Hitler invaded his homeland, Austria.
Because he was Jewish, Wellisch wasn’t allowed to attend graduation. A Nazi commissioner took over his father’s general store, only allowing the family rations. He put in an emigration request to try and leave Germany, and joined a Zionist agriculture-training program, but it wasn’t long before the violence escalated. In November, the Nazis staged anti-Jewish riots known as Kristallnacht — “the night of broken glass” — throughout Jewish communities, destroying synagogues and businesses and taking lives. He and his father were jailed and told to leave Austria. Amazingly, Wellisch’s visa and passport were approved, and he landed in New York in January of 1939.
Even more miraculously, after writing a letter to President Roosevelt, his parents arrived safely in New York on September 1 of that year, the day WWII began.
“Have I surprised the students by what I’m saying? I don’t think so,” Dr. Wellisch says about his time in classrooms, adding that the students already know he’s a living participant, and know some of the history. But they ask for details about his experience, and they almost always ask if he killed a German. He tells the students about his time in the U.S. army: he enlisted after living in Baltimore, where he graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1942.
Wellisch returned to Germany with Patton’s army to liberate the death camp Buchenwald; during this time, his army patrol captured an SS soldier. He has the students vote on whether they should have killed the soldier or taken him prisoner. Many vote they should have killed him, but Dr. Wellisch says, “I always bring it back to the point that if you were acting like the Nazis did, you were essentially promoting the difference between people, inequality.”
Small Synagogue, Big Efforts
Dr. Wellisch doesn’t just share his story with young students. Last April, he participated in the Yom HaShoah Holocaust program at Agudus Israel Synagogue in Hendersonville, which included some school outreach, along with exhibits and movie showings. But whether he’s in a synagogue or a school, he’s there for the same reason: “to tell people what happened to me, and why it must never happen again.”
That’s why Agudus congregant Dr. Teri Nadler-Thorz recruited Dr. Wellisch when working with the synagogue’s rabbi, Phil Cohen, PhD, to organize remembrance events for the entire Hendersonville community — something the synagogue had never done before.
Collaborating with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hendersonville and backed by her synagogue of only 150 members, Dr. Nadler-Thorz helped design a program to bring all ages and faiths together. Although she grew up hearing about the Holocaust in her Yiddish-speaking childhood home in Brooklyn, Nadler-Thorz learned even more at the local remembrance events — they had an impact she wasn’t quite expecting. Her emotional response was largely due to the powerful stories of rescuers supported by the JFR, as well as Wellisch’s attendance.
There were many poignant moments, including an unexpected reunion. “I couldn’t stop the tears,” Nadler-Thorz remembers.
Her outreach approach is “to start in your own backyard,” she says. “You work with the interfaith programs. You discuss things that are important: How do you create awareness for each other, how do you talk about the Holocaust, how do you create this invisible link and this invisible shield to protect our own little community?”
Nadler-Thorz says the way to ensure the historical atrocity is never repeated is to increase friendship and tolerance through education. “We always use the verbiage, ‘Never again.’”
She feels the possibility exists for one small town to become a model for other cities. Plans for a 2015 Yom HaShoah program hadn’t begun at press time, but Nadler-Thorz hopes to keep the education and outreach happening in Hendersonville. “We can’t change the world, but we can change our neighborhood. We have to start here.”
Visit jfr.org for more about the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous; diversityed.org to learn more about the Center for Diversity Education; agudasisraelsynagogue.org for more about Agudus Israel Synagogue in Hendersonville.