Holocaust survivors’ descendants keep memory alive in new education program

The program offers opportunities to invite a Holocaust survivor into local classrooms.

Jewish Family and Community Services is now offering a new Holocaust education program that combines what we know from the history books and first-hand accounts from first and second-generation survivors.

In a nationwide survey on the Holocaust, a significant number of Gen-Z and Millennials can’t name a single concentration camp. The survey also revealed a clear lack of awareness of what happened during the Holocaust. 63 percent of surveyors said they do not know that six million Jews were murdered. With this information, Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) has been working to develop a program to help teachers navigate this heavy topic. The non-profit thought it was only right to launch the initiative during Hanukkah.

JFCS will send school districts or teachers what is called a bundle upon request. Not only will it include all the resources needed to educate kids about this topic, but it also gives the teacher an option to invite a Holocaust survivor into the classroom.

Helen Meatte is a second-generation Holocaust survivor participating in the program.

“I think I knew that my family was different,” Meatte said. Growing up, she said her parents always wanted the best for her and there was an expectation to ‘always be happy’ in her household. She later learned it was because of the sadness and fear they endured. They wanted something different for her.

Here is her story.

“Before the Nazis came in, the Jews lived in Poland, far away, in little farm towns away from the big cities,” Meatte said. “My mother happened to be blue-eyed and blonde, so she could pass. She had the fake papers, and she was left alone. She was left alone. She had no parents. No brothers. No sisters. No husband. But, she had her papers.”

Right before the war, Meatte’s uncles ventured to South America. Her mother was able to hide in plain sight because of her looks. She went undetected for five years working at a slave labor camp.

“My mother survived, and the two uncles survived,” Meatte said. Her two aunts and grandparents were killed.

Her father owned a candy shop in Germany. His business was confiscated by the Nazis. He was able to escape Germany and moved to the United States. One year later, he was drafted in the war.

“But, the rest of the family was killed or put in Auschwitz,” Meatte said. “That’s what happened to my aunt. My aunt Louise was in Auschwitz. She and her father and her mother and her youngest brother were taken.”

The entire family was separated.

“She [Aunt Louise] lived in the images that you’ve seen. The triple-stacked bunks and no toilet,” Meatte said. “They had buckets.”

She said it was faith and small acts of kindness from others that kept her aunt hopeful…and a dream.

“One night, she had a dream. This is my favorite part of her story, but she talks about a dream she had that woke her up,” Meatte said. “It was a very short dream, but she said in her dream her mother came to her. And, her mother said, ‘everything will be ok. You’ll be fine.’”

The following day, a German soldier asked if any of the women in the camp knew German or had typing skills. Her aunt previously worked as a secretary so she stepped forward. She was transferred to work in the Commander’s office.

“There were a few acts of kindness that stuck with her that kept her going,” Meatte said. “Occasionally, one of the officers would leave a sandwich for her on her desk.”

Meatte has shared her story with a handful of classrooms across Northeast Florida via Zoom.

“You can read something in a book, but having somebody come in and meet you in person and tell their family story is very emotional,” Hilary Bettman said. “It’s very impactful, and it’s something that students do not forget.”

Bettman is the Director of Jewish Services for JFCS. She is part of the team working to bring stories, like Meatte’s, into Northeast Florida classrooms.

“They can have books and resources,” Bettman said. “[They can] have a tour, and they can also meet with a local, second-generation Holocaust survivor.”

The agency is working to make these tours and visits in-person for 2022.

“In addition to what they’re learning in school, [they] get some real-world context about the Holocaust,” Bettman said.

Meatte said she is sharing her story to ensure history never repeats itself. But, she like to tie in a message of hope into what is a rather grim historic period.

“I base my presentation on family,” Meatte said. “I think that everyone can relate to family and the importance of family. The loss of family, and the hole that it leaves.”

Meatte always ends her stories with a family photo of her and her parents.

“I talk about the importance of this little girl telling the story,” Meatte said, pointing to her photo in her family’s photo album

If educators or administrators are interested in learning more or gaining access to these resources, they can visit JFCSJax.org or contact Melissa Williams directly at mgwilliams@jfcsjax.org.