Rubin Szatjer wants the world to never forget.
“The best way for evil to flourish is for good people to say nothing,” said the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor from Timonium as he spoke to Mount Airy Middle School eighth-graders at an assembly Thursday.
With few Holocaust survivors around to tell their stories, the students were given the rare opportunity to hear Szatjer’s story.
Sztajer, along with his wife of 59 years, Regina, spoke to an audience of about 180 students about his three years in several Nazi concentration camps, his liberation and his eventual journey to America. Around 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, including his parents and three younger siblings.
“If we were to take every man, woman and child in Maryland we would not get 6 million, we would have to include Delaware,” Szatjer said. “My being here has got to be a miracle.”
Sztajer was 16 years old when he was separated from his family after they were moved to a Jewish ghetto in Poland, where the family of eight was living together in one room.
“It was a Friday [when I was taken],” he said. “I will never forget the tears, the faces, the pain of my mother and three siblings. We all had to become men, we could not be children anymore. My childhood, education, and life all came to a standstill.”
From then until liberation, Szatjer became number 25685. He was subjected to forced labor, including burying his fellow captors, in half a dozen different concentration camps, before being liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
Szatjer said his older sister, who was being held at the same camp, found him in a coma after liberation and nursed him back to health.
“She found me naked,” he said. “Somebody must have thought I was dead. I was as close to dying as anyone could be. For the next seven months, I was a vegetable.”
At 23, Szatjer came to the United States, unable to speak English and with no money. It was seven weeks before he was able to find a job in a wholesale store cleaning toilets and sweeping floors.
“I’m very proud of this because I did it myself,” he said. “I made a life for myself.”
While his story is hard to hear, Szatjer said, he speaks to students so that the lives of those lost and the history are not forgotten.
“You guys are going to have to be the ones that carry on the future. You have opportunities that are unlimited,” he said. “The only reason that I’m doing this is that you are my heirs, you are my inspiration. When I look at all of you the attention that I get and the interest you have in learning does as much good for me as it does for you.”
Eighth-graders at the school recently completed a unit on World War II and the Holocaust, but for some, hearing Szatjer’s words brought the time to life.
“I’ll always remember (this),” said student Silas Kelly, 14. “I’m really glad that he could come share his story with us because it was really inspirational.”
“It was hard to hear about, but I think it’s something everyone should know about,” said Marisa Cecil, 14. “It’s something you don’t forget.”
Sztajer has been talked to students for more than 25 years, with no plans to stop, he said. This is the third time that he has spoken to students at the Mount Airy school.
“I’ll do this until I can’t walk anymore, I’ll do this until my lips don’t move,” he said.