“Though she may be short in stature, [my great-grandmother] is my hero.” With these words, Lexi Silverman introduced Minnie Osher, a Holocaust survivor, to Roland Park Country School as the keynote speaker for its 25th Yom HaShoah program on April 28.
Osher, 91, who still speaks with an accent portraying her Polish heritage, was only 13 when World War II broke out. She survived the Lodz Ghetto, transport in boxcars, death marches, overwhelming illness and six concentration camps before being liberated from Bergen-Belsen by British forces on April 15, 1945.
“Since I go to Roland Park, I think [this program] is very important,” said Silverman, an 11th-grade student. “I love this convocation, it gives people awareness of the past and the present. It is different learning in a textbook about the Holocaust. When someone speaks and shares a story, you see visual images and hear the emotions from them. [The school] always tries to get the most accurate and real representation of someone who is a survivor.”
One of the most impactful stories Osher told, both to her grandchildren and to the Roland Park audience, was that on the day of her liberation, her cousin, Luba, had given up her will to live. “Come now, die later,” is what Osher told her cousin.
“I just love that quote,” said Aidan Silverman, Osher’s great-grandson and an eighth-grader at Boys’ Latin. “It taught me that there is always hope — to never give up and always persevere when I have a problem.”
When asked why she felt it was important to tell her story, Osher exclaimed without hesitation: “Because I’m Jewish! Because I went through this terrible thing. Why did I go through it? The whole world needs to know.”
Osher also recollected how on a death march, she snuck into a house filled with 11 sleeping S.S. soldiers one night and stole a knapsack full of food. She and her cousins, Luba and Regina, were able to sleep well because they had eaten. She buried the knapsack under a pile of straw; otherwise she would have been shot for the offense.
“In the morning, the Germans were so loud and asked who took it,” she said. “My cousin looked at me, and I said ‘Don’t look at me! Look at him, or her.” It was this canniness that enabled Osher to survive.
“One of the most important things about this program is that our students have a chance to access history through a survivor telling a story,” said Caroline Blatti, head of school at Roland Park. “It is a gift for them to understand how history has been shaped before them and how they can shape history differently going forward. Hearing Minnie’s story today builds capacities for empathy and for our girls to really think beyond the curriculum, that there are real lives and stories intertwined with every moment of history.”
“It is incomprehensible to wrap your head around the injustices and inhumanity of what has happened before,” she continued, “but I think the message … is to move forward with hope, to never forget. Hopefully, our children in generations to come will internalize that message.”
Students came away from the program moved. “Seeing Lexi right next to [Osher] was really, really powerful,” said Rebecca Sereboff, a member of the Jewish Heritage Club at Roland Park. “It is this statement that the Jews have survived, we are still here.”
“The ordeals she went through as a teenager — we are all around that age, so trying to think of myself in her shoes, that is insane,” said Alanna Sereboff, president of the Student Diversity Association.
“She was just a teenager like we are,” said Silverman. “In an instant she became an orphan. Who would give her advice when she grows up? Who would help support her?”
The school goes above and beyond to ensure that the day’s programming will engage students in thought and remembrance. A solemn atmosphere is maintained throughout the school, volunteers take turns reading the names of children who perished in the Holocaust, and video streams images and recollections of children and survivors. The assembly for students also included a candle-lighting ceremony and the mourner’s Kaddish.
Although Roland Park is a secular school, it has devoted itself to putting on a Holocaust Remembrance Day event every year since 1992. According to Marlo Thomas-McNeil, director of diversity for the school, the program started through a collaboration between Evelynn McCleary, the first director of diversity, and Peggy Wolf, the school’s Jewish admissions director.
In 2009, an endowment was given to the school by Annette and Michael Saxon and Frederica and William Saxon Jr. so that the event could continue in perpetuity. Blatti expressed that the school is grateful to the Saxon family for providing the opportunity for students to experience these stories firsthand.
“It is of particularly great importance to push a connection between what we teach students historically and relevant events that are occurring in the world today,” said Thomas-McNeil. “We really emphasize the need to remember incidences of genocide and mass atrocities that have resulted in senseless losses of human life to ensure that each member of our student body grows to be empathetic and compassionate members of the world who will not sit in silence when witnessing injustices or oppressive treatment of others.”
According to Jessica Silverman, Osher’s granddaughter, Osher wouldn’t have spoken to such a large crowd for anyone except the family. However, she knew how important it was for her to speak to the students who might not otherwise get an opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor.
“She was incredible,” said Rebecca Zipper, another member of the Jewish Heritage Club. “It’s really important, I think, to hear Holocaust survivor stories, because we are the last generation that gets to hear these stories [firsthand]. Hearing as many stories as we can … to pass on to our peers and children is very important.”