Holocaust survivor visits Oakland Middle School

Thursday, March 6, 2014 | 9:35 p.m. CST
Oakland Middle School students learned about the Holocaust from Ben Fainer, a Holocaust survivor, and the family of another Holocaust survivor Gerda Nothman Luner on Thursday.

COLUMBIA — Sixty-seven years later, Ben Fainer still remembers the end.

It was the morning of April 23, 1945, and it was raining. He had been marching for two or three days with some of Dachau's other concentration camp prisoners when, over a distant hill, he saw two American tanks rolling toward them.

Fainer had been separated from his mother and siblings when he was 9 years old. They were sent to Auschwitz to die, while he and his father were sent to a forced labor camp — the first of six camps he would be sent to before the war's end.

Nearly six years later, near the German village of Cham, that end had come. He was finally free.

The only members of the family who survived the war besides Fainer and his father were relatives who migrated to Dublin before they could be deported.

Fainer, who wrote about his Holocaust experience in his book "Silent for Sixty Years," spoke about his experiences Thursday to students at Oakland Middle School. Vera and Sonia Emmons, the descendants of Holocaust survivor Gerda Nothmann Luner, also spoke about the memoir they created from Luner's letters.

Life after liberation

The feeling of knowing his ordeal was over, Fainer said, was indescribable. "I got on the ground and kissed the ground."

Fainer even had the privilege of later meeting one of his liberators, Norris G. Nims, who died in 2011.

After liberation, he moved to the United States to begin a new life. He and his wife went on to have seven children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. 

It took Fainer many years to open up about his past, and he only decided to share his story because of a friend's encouragement.

In 2012, Fainer published "Silent for Sixty Years."  He also created videos that focus on the stories of other survivors and liberators. 

"I've decided to devote the rest of my life to speaking to beautiful children like you," Fainer said.

His testimony resonated powerfully with some students.

"I asked him if he had any flashbacks, and I started crying," eighth-grade student Baylee Eckles said. "It was really heartfelt."

A tragedy becomes a legacy

Luner's daughter Vera didn't grow up hearing bedtime stories. Instead, her parents would tell her about what it was like to live in Berlin under the Nazi government.

Vera Emmons learned that her mother and aunt, for whom she was named, were separated from their parents as children.

In 1944, Luner was sent to Auschwitz, where she learned her parents and sister had been dead for more than a year.

Luner survived Auschwitz, and after the war she immigrated to the United States to live with her relatives. She graduated from Virginia Tech, and in 1952 she met her future husband, Charles. They had two daughters, Julie and Vera.

When Luner died in 1999, Vera decided it was time to tell her story. 

"I consider it my legacy," she said. "I worked to pass this down to our children."

Joined by her own daughter, Sonia, Vera shared Luner's life with her photos and personal letters to family members. Those letters, along with Luner's writings about her life, eventually morphed into a memoir called "Gerda's Story: Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor." The Emmonses read sections of the memoir Thursday to the students.

Andrea Kirkpatrick, an eighth-grade teacher and the event's sponsor, said the goal of the event was to help students understand the Holocaust from a generational perspective.

"We want students to understand the lasting impacts of the Holocaust — not only on survivors, but their families and, ultimately, ourselves," she said.

Listen to more audio from the event below, and hear the whole playlist on our SoundCloud page:

Fainer speaks about finally getting to celebrate his bar mitzvah with the help of a kind rabbi:

After hearing the stories of two families affected by the Holocaust, Vera Emmons issues a charge to the students as they go on with their lives:

Supervising editor is Adam Aton.

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