"As a survivor, I have a responsibility to tell young people what happened and what could happen again," said Holocaust survivor Peter Feigl Thursday in response to a Dumas sixth grade student's question about how he felt about having survived events that took the lives of his parents and six million other European Jews during the Second World War. Feigl gave Dumas sixth graders a powerful lesson in tolerance, courage, and, self sacrifice . He recounted via Skype from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. the story of his escape from persecution and murder more than 70 years ago, when he was about the same age as the students listening. The students sat quietly for more than an hour in the cafeteria of Dumas Intermediate School and listened intently to the aging, grey-haired man with an accent who spoke to them from a screen about his struggle to survive and, especially, about the total strangers of different faiths and nationalities who risked their lives to help him. "Without those people I would not be here today," he said. He appealed to the students to follow their example of tolerance and courage. "There is too much killing and hating. You must fight against bullying and discrimination," he said. "All people need to respect each other."
"It went really well. It is hard to get 12-year-olds to sit still for an hour," said Sarah Redus, head sixth-grade reading teacher, whose idea it was to have Feigl speak. "Parents have been commenting on our Instagram account that their kids were talking about it," she said. "It has sparked a conversation that is very authentic."
The message had a particular resonance with the diverse students in the cafeteria, a significant number of whom have personal experience with persecution and life as a refugee, according to Redus. Every year, Redus and fellow reading teachers, Taylor Quirk and Desha Almanza, teach their students about the Holocaust and have them read a book dealing with the subject. "Burmese kids volunteer their stories of persecution in their villages ... whenever we talk about the holocaust, they are able to bring in their own experience," said Redus.
Studying about the Holocaust has benefits for all the students, Redus believes. The talk by Feigl was "our big wrap up" for the Holocaust block of instruction. Redus was in Dallas last summer at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. Museum personnel told her that the national museum in Washington could provide her with a speaker via Skype, so she got in touch with the museum and, ultimately, with Feigl, and the talk was scheduled. "It is crazy to see how it has built empathy," she said. "It is once in a lifetime. It is so authentic. You can't teach that."
Peter Feigl was born in Berlin in 1929 to a prosperous, secular Jewish family. He did not have a particularly strong sense of Jewish identity growing up, he told the students Thursday. His first taste of anti-semitism came at school when his teachers taught that Jews were evil. As Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1930's, and life became increasingly difficult for Jews, Feigl's father, who was Austrian, moved the family to Austria. Their respite was short-lived; Hitler annexed Austria to Germany in 1938 and instituted draconian anti-Jewish laws.
The family had money. Feigl's father was an engineer who worked for a company with an office in Brussels, Belgium, so the family moved again. They did not, however, find the long-term safety they were seeking. The outbreak of war made Feigl and his parents, who had German passports, enemy aliens in Belgium. Hitler's invasion of Belgium in 1940 turned them into stateless refugees when they fled to France in front of the advancing German Army. Feigl told the students Thursday what it was like to be on foot walking as a refugee to France with thousands of other civilians, caught between the warring armies and shot at by German aircraft. As an 11-year-old boy witnessing German planes periodically machine gun the roads, Feigl said his first impression was that he wished he too could be in the air force and shoot machine guns.
The family made it to France, where they got stuck along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. They were fleeing the German Army, but to the French authorities they were Germans who had illegally crossed into France without the proper visa. Over the next few years, the family was in and out of internment camps and lived an increasingly desperate existence. The defeat of France and, later, the occupation of the entire country by the Germans brought terrible restrictions and deprivations both to French Jews and Jewish refugees with no place else to go. The family tried desperately to get out of France and reach a neutral country, but it was not to be. Feigl's parents, who once had employed servants, were reduced to performing menial labor to survive. Eventually, they were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they both perished. Feigl survived to bare witness because his mother had been able to get him into a Quaker-run summer camp shortly before their arrest. The Quakers did not turn Peter over to the authorities for deportation. They and many other "good people" in southern France, Catholic and Protestant, risked everything to hide him and provide him with a new identity. Feigl, the German Jew, was able to live in a remote Protestant village as a Frenchman, thanks to his benefactors, who, he said, "were willing to do the right thing." Eventually, a group of Jewish underground fighters smuggled him to Switzerland. After the war, he made it to America, where, at the age of 18, he joined the United States Air Force, and, in an ironic twist, returned to Germany as part of the occupation force.
On Thursday, one of the students asked him whether he had any desire for revenge against the Germans. "In the beginning, in the Air Force, I was happy to see their cities destroyed. It was my way of vengeance. But little by little I couldn't feel hatred towards Germans my age and younger. In the 1970's, I travelled to Germany on business, and I realized the Nazi days were over. Vengeance doesn't get you anything."