Stop the hate: Stories from a Holocaust survivor

For Parents Feb 16, 2023

*Update: Hedy is returning to share her story with us on Feb 23rd, 2023. You won't want to miss it. Sign up here. Below is a recap of her last visit.

At Outschool, we’re passionate about helping kids love learning. Learning can look like tackling a challenging subject in a lighthearted way or doing a fun project with friends. But education should also be about understanding the tragic parts of history, so future generations refuse to let them be repeated.

That’s why, in recognition of International Holocaust Memorial Day, Outschool invited learners to hear from Hedy Bohm, a Holocaust survivor now living in Canada. In a special session for kids ages 10 and up, Hedy shared her first-hand account of her Holocaust experience and time at Auschwitz, where Nazis starved, abused, murdered, and forced Jews into labor.

Originally, we were only going to offer one class for learners, but it filled up so fast, Hedy generously agreed to do another. Get the details and sign up here.

Hedy also shared an adult-appropriate version of her story in a separate session for Outschool educators. Here she speaks on the powerful role teachers play in shaping the perspectives of young learners. Here’s the recap, and a recording of this session is available on the Educator Library.

Educators were also invited to participate in a webinar hosted by Holocaust education expert Michael Soberman on teaching difficult topics. Check out the key takeaways from his presentation.

With few living survivors remaining to tell their stories firsthand, we’re proud to use our platform to spotlight them. We hope that hearing accounts like this will help kids learn how to stop hate and propaganda, and stand up to bullies.

Below is a session recap for those who can’t make it, or those who want a sneak peek.  

Stories From a Holocaust Survivor

*Image borrowed from the March of the Living Canada website 

Picture an online class full of children’s faces aged 10-18. They’re rapt as they listen to Hedy share her story. For some, this may be the first time they've heard about the Holocaust. Watching them listen to her, I see everything through their fresh eyes.

Hedy is wry and funny, with a lovely spirit and sharp wit. Her gentle accent is hypnotic. You can tell she loves engaging with the kids – and she captivates the attention of the youngsters and teens alike. Their eyes barely leave the screen.

Hedy begins by talking about her “before.” The time before she understood what was happening in her country, and to the Jews that surrounded her.

“I was in grade 10 when I had to face reality for the first time. I didn’t know there was such a thing as anti-semitism growing up. I was never bullied. I assumed, as so many others did, that I was an equal citizen in Hungary.”

Hedy then describes her father. He was a soldier in the Hungarian army in World War I and fought from 1914 to 1918. He believed that the “Hungarian government would never betray their Jewish citizens. He was wrong, and he paid for it with his life.”

Hedy then shares about the regulations that chipped away freedom and dignity.

“The anti-semantic laws came and took over our lives. Slowly but surely. All our rights as human beings and citizens were eroded. Every year dozens of new orders and regulations to humiliate, and degrade, and rob us.”

The mistreatment was endless. The Jews were not allowed to enter certain professions. Nor were they allowed to go to university. There was heavy forced labor – and no escaping any of it.

Hedy explains they did all the heavy and dangerous work without the right food, clothing, warmth, or care that the Hungarian army received. Hedy’s husband was ordered to clean up while bombs were still falling. Thousands froze and starved.

Hedy describes her once-thriving city of Oradea, Romania. She talks about how wonderful it was at the time, with a theater, concert hall, and a beautiful river.

“Everything was there, except goodwill and kindness and tolerance for our differences. So when Hitler declared that the Jews must die, Hungary’s Nazis joined in with gusto. They just did it with such pleasure and interest they became better than the German ones.”

The Jews were asked to hand over “everything we valued.” Art. Jewelry. Bank accounts. Everything. Instead of going to university to prepare for their futures, they took the city's brightest to the labor camps.

Hedy’s parents sheltered her and wouldn’t discuss politics until she was out of the room.

“I was more naive than a first-grader with a TV is now. We didn’t even discuss it at school. We stuck strictly to our subjects, totally ignoring the world around us. We weren’t encouraged to think and ask questions. I love how schools and teachers encourage questions now. I think that’s really important, especially to know there are no stupid questions. So I encourage everyone who listens to me to ask questions.”

In March of 1944, the authorities announced that school was canceled until further notice for Jewish children. “The principal expressed his deep regret and hoped that after the war, we could continue. That didn’t happen.”

Hedy’s mother then sewed a big yellow star on her coat and told her she couldn’t go out without it. “I knew I was different, but I couldn’t understand why. Why was I different? Because I’m Jewish? It made me feel humiliated and like an outcast – which is what they wanted.”

Things escalated quickly. Within a month, it was announced the Jews would be taken to a ghetto. Soldiers came into their homes and took them by force with instructions to pack a small overnight bag with nothing valuable. “Not that we had anything valuable to bring by then. We packed a change of clothes, a towel, a pillow, and a blanket. That was it.”

The Nazis led Hedy and her family to a one-bedroom apartment. There, the four families were each given a corner.

“Unlike memories which are so vivid of Auschwitz and my slave labor time in a German factory, I don’t remember anything about the ghetto. I know I turned sixteen there, but the rest is a blur. I don’t remember what we ate or what we did.”

They came for Hedy’s family at the end of May. They were ordered to leave their meager possessions and get into the cattle cars.

They shoved 80-90 people into the small iron and barbed wire cattle cars. They had two pails—one pail full of water and one empty one – for waste. There was no privacy, space, or room to breathe.

Hedy said she didn’t remember there being any conversations. “I remember only darkness and stench. Children’s cries and moaning. People who were sick and in pain, or just desperate.” Hedy and her family spent three days and nights in that cattle car.

The Jews were told the worst-case scenario was that they would be left at the border until the war’s end. Hedy said they couldn’t bring themselves to believe the horror stories of the concentration camps that they had heard.

“From the moment the cattle car door opened, no one spoke to us. They just screamed at us.” It was chaos. Crowds full of exhausted people who were hungry and thirsty and “scared out of their minds.” Families tried to stay together, but the men and women were separated within seconds. Hedy’s father left with the others, with no time to say goodbye. She never saw him again.

When Hedy tried to rejoin her mother, she was stopped by a rifle and directed to the right.

"I cried out to my mom, and she heard me. I looked at her, at my mom, who was always there. She always had the solutions to my life. We looked at each other for a few seconds, and then, without a word, she turned around and kept walking."

The road Hedy’s mother walked led straight to the gas chambers. “For the first time in my life, I was alone. In a strange place with no one I knew. It was the most difficult moment of my life.”

Hedy spent the next three months almost entirely alone. She saw her best friend, who was so sick she couldn’t swallow the “soup” that they were given. Soup that was “worse than any dishwater in your sink.” It was a dark liquid full of splintered wood. “Being hungry became a way of life.”

Hedy was led into a shower room with more than 80 people. Her group was then led – naked, into a room full of strange men, where they shaved their hair and body hair and had disinfectant powder sprayed on them. “A few weeks before, I was just a girl at an all-girls school. Here I was naked and exposed to strange men.”

For almost a year, Hedy lived and worked in a dress pulled out of an old pile of clothes, with no underwear or socks and she wore wooden-soled shoes.

The horrors continued for Hedy and her fellow Jews. Every day people were “selected” and led away to labor assignments. Every day the Jews looked for solutions, looked for a way out, and found none.

When we asked Hedy what inspired her to keep going through all these difficult times, she answered, “My mom. I was convinced that if I managed to survive and live through all of this, we would meet again. I was convinced that she was strong enough and intelligent enough to survive. If I can, she will. That was my hope and motivation.”

The wide-eyed children listening to Hedy were full of questions. One learner asked, how can you speak about all these things that happened to you? So many horrible things happened to you. Why is it so important for you to share these stories with kids like us? Her response is beautiful and poignant.

It took me more than 50 years to find my voice. I had to bury my stories deep in my soul because I couldn’t bear thinking about them, much less talking about them.

But when I heard the President of Iran declare that there was no Holocaust, that it was a lie, I couldn’t take it. I was thinking if this is happening when I’m still here still, what will happen later when I’m not? I must, I must speak about it and become a witness. If not for myself, for my mother and father.

I don’t think there is anything more important for me than to tell you about it, so you learn the truth, and no one can lie to you about it. You can’t imagine what it’s like for someone to murder your parents and then to be told it didn’t happen.

We are so inspired by Hedy’s courage, vulnerability, and positivity – despite every travesty she has been through. Her final words to the students brought tears to my eyes.

I want to leave you students with the thought of being grateful for all the good things you have in your lives. For having parents for having homes. For having school and good teachers. And I’d like them to tell their mom and dad, ‘I love you.’ And to tell your teachers that ‘I respect and appreciate you.’ And to really live according to that, and to be kind to each other.

Forget who comes from where or what color they are. We are all God’s children. And be kind, always kind. And when you see someone being bullied, don’t stand by.  Stand up. Tell them this is not right. If someone is being mean to someone because of their color or religion, stand up and tell them ‘don’t do that. This is wrong.’

Be active, stand up. Be brave. We need you. The world needs you to be brave. Don’t forget. You’re each wonderful and have something to give. Whether you know it or not, at this point, you have something special in you, and you can make a difference.

Thank you to Hedy Bohm for finding your voice and speaking painful truths and for setting others free to do the same. This time with you was a privilege, and we are so grateful.

Learn More: Resources for Parents

Helpful Holocaust Resources

Virtual Museum Tours

How to talk to your children about the Holocaust

Outschool hopes survivor stories like Hedy’s move you to action. Action may mean digging into these difficult but crucial conversations with your kids. It might also mean supporting organizations working to stop the spread of hatred.

Please consider donating to Hedy’s Legacy Fund here.

*Originally published 02/04/22, updated 02/16/23

Anna Duin

Anna is a Content Strategist at Outschool. She's also a mother to two pretty-awesome little boys. Nothing makes her happier than rising to a challenge or making something new.