COVINGTON - Students at Newton High School heard a first-hand history lesson Friday morning.
Holocaust survivor Andre Kessler, who now lives in metro Atlanta and works at the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum of Atlanta, spoke to an auditorium full of high school freshman about his experiences in Germany in the 1940s.
"The ninth-grade language arts students are currently reading a novel by Elie Wiesel, titled 'Night,'" said LaKeshia Mills, an English/language arts teacher at Newton High School. "This novel is an autobiography that details Wiesel's experiences at the concentration camps during the Holocaust. This event will provide the students with the unique experience of being able to hear first-hand about the events they have been reading about."
Kessler, 69, told the students how he and his mother - who was fortunate to have blonde hair and blue eyes, unlike the stereotypical Jewish woman - hid out in a small apartment for 18 months and later trekked across several countries to avoid being captured and placed in gas chambers and concentration camps with 80 percent of his family.
"If I was ever in a camp ... I wouldn't be here today," said Kessler, who immigrated to the United States with his mother in 1951 to live with his uncles, enrolled in the Navy after having a difficult social and academic time in school, attended New York University on a basketball scholarship and eventually was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors for two years.
He stressed to students that he wanted to share his story to keep the United States from making the same mistakes as Germany and other countries who have so much hatred toward a group of people.
"If we forget history, we are doomed to repeat it," he said. "We are very fortunate ... that we live in the most free society in the world."
He also wanted them to know that the Holocaust was real and not made up, as many Web sites and even Middle East leaders say even today.
"You have people out there who tell lies about it, just like they did in the '30s and '40s," he said. "The Holocaust is the most documented event in human history. ... Trust me - it happened."
He encouraged students to make a difference - in their schools, in the country, in the world.
"The amazing part ... is that there were four types of people" (during the Holocaust) - victims, perpetrators, bystanders and rescuers/liberators, he said.
The largest group was the bystanders, who did nothing to help the 2.5 million refugees and 400,000 people who died, he said.
"Please do not be a bystander," he said. "If you see something wrong, speak up, because I'm getting older ... but you are the young people of the future. If you let it happen, it can happen in this country, just like it happened in Germany in the '30s and '40s."
He said even if it's something as simple as not being a bully and making friends with people who are different, students should make the effort to do it. He also encouraged them to write to their congressmen and senators about important issues going on in the United States and all over the world.
"There are still things going on in the U.S. today that young people can have an influence on," he said. "Trust me, your leaders will listen to you."
Michelle Floyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.