SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Liz Igra didn't sit Sunday — she was too busy inspiring 19 children of Holocaust survivors to help coming generations never forget the 11 million victims, including 6 million Jews.
"I never sit," said the animated Igra, 76, whose father died in one of the Nazi death camps.
She escaped a Polish ghetto with her mother in 1942, crossed the Carpathian Mountains on foot and walked all the way to Hungary, where they hid until the end of World War II.
By sharing experiences, Igra is training descendants of Holocaust survivors to carry on a living legacy so that it will not be lost to history as the survivors die off.
"You are their voice, you are their stand-in," Igra told the descendants gathered at Shalom School, which serves many of the region's Jewish students.
The middle-aged children of Holocaust survivors traded not only tales of extermination, starvation and brutality but of resourcefulness, courage and retribution.
Caren Zorman told of her grandfather, who became a Slovakian cop after the war to hunt down the Gestapo officer who had tortured him and his wife and sons. He lived to testify at his tormentor's trial and see him hanged.
"I struggle to know how to tell it," said Zorman. "My father, who was 8, said he could hear his mother scream when she was being beaten and tortured for hours until she revealed where her husband was hiding."
Harvey Edber shared the story of his dad, who – when ordered to leave his winter coat and toothbrush behind – used his fists in an uprising against armed Nazis at his slave labor camp to keep from being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
At last week's opening of "The Courage to Remember" Holocaust exhibit at California State University, Sacramento, Igra said she hopes this next generation will take their stories into the public schools.
"We don't learn by memorizing. We learn by looking for answers to difficult questions," she said. "How is it possible that normally law-abiding citizens participated in murder? And how come the world turned its head the other way for so long?"
True learning happens in face-to-face interactions between students and those who have lived it, Igra said.
"When I speak to students they say, 'You have changed my life,' " said Igra, who once taught in Elk Grove. "They come with a renewed energy to study, to emulate courage, to do the right thing."
That's why it's so critical to begin training the descendants of Holocaust survivors, said Igra, who founded the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network in 2009.
In the Shalom School classroom – surrounded by student paintings of Jewish sports heroes Sandy Koufax, Mark Spitz, Sasha Cohen and Omri Casspi – Igra and Tosha Tilletson, a representative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, helped the descendants find the tools and courage to share their families' histories.
"My father was the only survivor of his entire family – he lost four brothers, his sister, his parents – and suffered from classic survivor's guilt," said Ellisa Provance, managing editor of Sacramento's Jewish Voice. "He was with one of his brothers, and one went to one line and one went to another line.
"My dad was the most stubborn person I've ever met, but his sheer will and stubbornness – not giving up, and not giving in – is what kept him alive," Provance said. "It's just frightening how little kids know about the Holocaust, and even teachers."
The descendants gazed at telling photos: shoes and suitcases left by those sent to the chambers; children who never made it to adulthood; rows of Jews lined up in the camps awaiting their fate.
"My mother told us Josef Mengele (the Nazi doctor known as the Angel of Death) and his minions would come down the row at Auschwitz and say who would live and who would die," Estelle Tansey recalled. "She wanted to kill him with her bare hands finally she started to think, 'I'm becoming what I hate,' and her salvation would be forgiveness, not hate."
The Nazis took so many photos of their victims, Igra said, "because we were going to be an extinct race – they were going to create a museum for us."
The descendants studied a poster with 19 different Jewish stars, triangles, armbands and buttons used to identify Jews, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses in France, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and other nations.
Others said the horrors of the camps and Jewish ghettos where people lived on parsley, old beets and a few mouthfuls of bread continued after liberation. "My mother would tell stories of people who gorged themselves after being liberated, and dying because their stomachs couldn't take it," said Susan Solarz.
Filmmaker Ada Ross said her mother belonged to the Zionist movement in Hungary. "By using fake papers identifying her and others as Christian, she saved her father and other Jews and was never caught."
Her father's family wasn't so lucky. He lost aunts, uncles and cousins to the gas chambers, Ross said. "Not only do I think it could have been my parents, it could have been me."
"How is it possible that normally law-abiding citizens participated in murder? And how come the world turned its head the other way for so long?"
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