When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it's the end of the world. For some of us, a "problem" is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called "problems" would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.
I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.
At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.
In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn't hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.
Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.
Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.
A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz's father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn't even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.
Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she's been living here ever since. After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.
We're fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We're lucky we don't get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we're lucky we don't live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.
What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won't let anyone take that away.
"I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us," Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. "I speak for those who can't speak."
The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.
Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.