"Never again...never again."
That was the underlying theme of Holocaust survivor Paul Kessler’s message to Weatherford High School students Jan. 28.
Kessler represents a handful of Holocaust survivors living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who are willing to speak about their experiences and teach the lessons of the Holocaust to encourage especially young people to stand against hate and prejudice.
Kessler was born in Slovakia and was a 5-year-old boy when the Nazi armies entered the country and the village where he and his family lived. He and his mother were hidden by courageous farmers while his father and grandmother were captured and taken to Auschwitz concentration camp.
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Shortly after the war ended and he emerged from the darkness, Kessler said only seven of the 20 in his family had survived. His grandmother returned safely but his father did not.
“I was the only Jewish child in that village to survive,” Kessler said.
In 1951, Kessler’s mother arranged for his family to come to the United States where they relocated to Los Angeles when Kessler was 12. It wasn’t until much later in his adult life that he began researching the history of his family at Auschwitz.
“I am forever grateful for the freedoms and opportunity I have been able to enjoy in life,” Kessler said to the students.
But his most important message to the students, he said, didn’t come from his story but from the lessons that could be learned from the Holocaust.
“My story is just one of many and it’s not what’s important,” he said. “We don’t want our past to become our future...the message is more important than ever.”
Posing the rhetorical question of “how do you kill 11 million people?” Kessler answered by saying, “you lie to them and get yourself elected.”
“The main problem wasn’t [Adolph Hitler], it was the people who elected Hitler leader,” Kessler said, adding that the Holocaust actually began in 1933 when Hitler began executing the disabled for being what he considered “useless eaters.”
To prevent another horrific event from happening in the future, Kessler said the students had two choices.
“You can either be an upstander or a bystander,” he said. “Imagine how many people had to be silent for the Holocaust to happen? Don’t be silent when you witness hate.
“There is no reason religion or color of our skin should divide us.”
What might’ve been
Kessler also asked the students to consider the many children who perished in the Holocaust.
Citing statistics of how many Jewish people have been Nobel Prize winners, Kessler said it will never be known what the many who died may have accomplished later in their lives.
“The tragedy is we will never know what they might have done to better this world,” he said. “You have the chance to be what those children didn’t and can be anything you want to be. Don’t squander that; take advantage of it.”
He also challenged the students to give their best each day and then better that by 1 percent the next day. He also told them to ask themselves what they would’ve done if they had been alive during the Holocaust but, more importantly, what will they do going forward?
When he was finished, the students in attendance - who packed the Jerry Durant Auditorium during their MegaLunch period - gave Kessler a standing ovation.
WHS principal Lyn Pool then addressed them.
“What a gift you’ve been given today,” she said. “Take what you heard today and use it; that’s your challenge. Silence doesn’t work.”
She then invited those who could stay longer to do so and Kessler then took questions.
“We have to stand and fight evil,” Kessler said in response to one student. “Every day, people are getting blown away and beheaded and it seems like we are worse off than before. People will sell their soul to get something for nothing.”
When asked if he thought another Holocaust would have to happen in order for people to listen, Kessler said he hoped not. He added also that the tragedy of 9/11 is what prompted him to research more about his family’s history and that it was eye-opening for him.
“Auschwitz is not only a concentration camp, it’s a cemetery where I visit the remains of my father,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to share the lessons; it’s not about the past but about the future.”
Melissa Winn, 817-594-9902, Ext. 104