Telling His Story of Survival Again and Again


Michael Herskovitz is among about two dozen survivors and liberators who've made a point to share their experiences with audiences throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

Michael Herskovitz, an Auschwitz survivor, grew up in a village of 50 families in Czecho­slovakia. There were only two Jewish families, but he didn’t think of himself as any different from the other residents. The men who showed up in 1944 wearing strange uniforms were the ones who seemed different.

Until those German soldiers arrived, the 86-year-old told students at E.T. Richardson Middle School in Springfield on Jan. 16, he had been a student just like them.

“Parents were parents and children were children,” he said.

The 280 students filling the Richardson auditorium sat in silence as Herskovitz spoke about death, hunger, perseverance and peace.  He didn’t show photos or artifacts, and the students didn’t pull out cell phones or squirm in their seats.

“It wasn’t your run of the mill assembly; this is really powerful,” said Rich Turturici, a social studies teacher.

Herskovitz, a Bala Cynwyd resident, has given talks about his experience during the war since 1994, with the majority of the engagements facilitated by the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center at the Klein JCC in Northeast Philadelphia.

The museum, one of several local organizations involved with Holocaust-related education, has increased its Holocaust education programming considerably in the last decade.

About eight years ago, the museum had seven survivors who volunteered to speak. Now, it has a roster of more than 30 survivors and liberators. As a result, the number of speaking engagements has increased over that time period from 40 to 431 during the 2013-14 school year, according to the museum.

Funding has also increased and three years ago, the museum, which was established in 1961, hired its first full-time program director. Phil Holtje is a graduate of the Holocaust and Genocide Education master’s program at West Chester University — and is not Jewish.

Educating about the Holocaust “is a human issue,” said Chuck Feldman, who has served as president of the museum for 35 years. “When we go into the schools, 90 percent plus of the students that we see are not Jewish and when we talk, we talk about the perils of hatred and bigotry and what happens when they are allowed to run amok, and obviously we are seeing that, unfortunately, in the world today.”

Before any speaker delivers a talk, the museum requires that teachers prepare the students. At Richardson, the eighth-grade students had spent a semester learning about genocide, with a particular focus on the Holocaust, including reading The Diary of Anne Frank and survivors’ testimonies.

Herskovitz told the students how he first learned that he was different: He was told that he could no longer go to school because he was Jewish, and the Nazis seized his father’s grocery store. Then he, his parents and his four siblings were transported to the Uzhgorod ghetto. After living there for a while, they were loaded onto cattle cars where there were buckets for them to go to the bathroom that were dumped at each stop.

At Auschwitz, Herskovitz was separated from his parents who, along with a younger brother, were killed.

Despite not being able to find his father, who had been in line with him at the entrance, he couldn’t yell or even “speak loud, because the minute you say something, you get beaten right on the back, so it was just quiet.”

He spent six months at the camp, scraping by on bread and watery soup, he said. He saw people taken to the gas chambers, bodies taken to the crematorium and farmers picking up the ashes.

From Auschwitz, the Nazis moved Herskovitz first to Mauthausen, then to Gunskirchen, both concentration camps in Austria. He was at Gunskirchen when British troops liberated the camp in May 1945.

After the war, Herskovitz moved to Israel, where he joined the Israeli army, married a woman named Frida, who was from Czechoslovakia and had also survived Auschwitz, and they had two children. In 1959, Herskovitz and the family moved to the United States and opened Main Line Auto Center, which his son now runs. Herskovitz still stops by most mornings.

After Herskovitz’s presentation, a student asked if he harbors any anger toward the Germans.

“I’m never hungry, and I’m never angry,” he said. “I cannot blame kids for what their parents did because I experienced the United States, and we have beautiful parents and bad kids and bad parents and beautiful kids.”

Finished with questions, students approached Herskovitz and thanked him. Then, they pulled out their phones to take photographs with him.


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