Relaying messages from history: Holocaust survivor Eva Wiener speaks at PHS

June, 2023
Meiya XiongLeila Guitton

To supplement Holocaust education during Jewish American Heritage Month, Holocaust survivor Eva Wiener shared her story with PHS students in a one-hour presentation on Tuesday, May 16. Sophomores attended the presentation in PHS’ Performing Arts Center, while other grades watched it online from their homerooms. The presentation also allowed time for a Q&A session.

During the event, Wiener described the persecution that she and her family faced as Jews leading up to and during World War II. When Wiener was born, the environment in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile towards Jewish people, and Wiener’s family was forced to leave the country in the aftermath of Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”) on November 9, 1938. As a result, in 1939, at ten months old, Wiener became a passenger of the S.S. St. Louis, a cruise liner that was bound for Havana, Cuba. Onboard, it carried almost entirely Jewish refugees escaping persecution in Germany. However, upon its arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government did not permit the ship to dock due to antisemitic sentiment. The ship then traveled to the Florida coast, where it was similarly prevented from landing. Forced to return back to Europe, only four European countries decided to admit passengers. Wiener’s family was admitted to England and stayed there for the rest of the war. Unfortunately, the majority of those who went to the other three countries — France, the Netherlands, and Belgium — did not survive the war.

Given that racial literacy is one of PHS’ priorities, this event was an important part of the school’s Holocaust education.

“Educational excellence today is no longer limited to just academic excellence; cultural proficiency and racial literacy are priorities as well. … [The] Holocaust was a horrific event in human history. By understanding the historical context and the gradual progression of events that led to the Holocaust, we can work to prevent similar atrocities in the future and promote a more peaceful and tolerant world. … Listening to Mrs. Wiener’s story makes us appreciate the sufferings and biases she endured, [and] it reminds us of the danger of hate,” said PHS Assistant Principal Nicole Mantuano Lacsamana, who conducted the Q&A session.

This event helped to supplement students’ understanding of the Holocaust by providing an opportunity to hear the personal story of someone who was directly impacted.

“I think oral history is an important component of understanding. When you’re hearing it straight from someone who has a direct, personal connection, I think it’s much more impactful. The more we can do that, the better off we are as a people. It’s hard to encapsulate the Holocaust, [and] that direct connection has more meaning. It becomes much more tangible,” said Christopher De Young, a PHS History Teacher.

Ero Christy ’25, a sophomore who attended the presentation live, expressed that Wiener’s presentation conveyed a touching and an enlightening message. Personally, Christy was motivated to start looking at alternate view points.

“I thought it was really interesting and important for us to hear. It was powerful [and] effective in promoting awareness [of] history. [The] Holocaust [is] very real to me as something that happened in pretty recent history, but it did definitely change my perspective of what a Holocaust survivor [is] because her experience is not one of a concentration camp, and it’s instead one of a political survivor,” Christy said.

Although Wiener had not always considered herself a Holocaust survivor, since she did not fit the typical profile, she later changed her mind about going public with her story when she recognized the historical significance of the S.S. St. Louis.

“This ship became a symbol to the world of what the Nazi government was planning to do. They wanted to show the world that this cargo of Jewish passengers was not wanted [by] any other country [to justify their elimination of] Jewish people, [becoming] a forerunner of what [the Nazis] called ‘The Final Solution,’” Wiener said.

Realizing that she was part of this historical event, Wiener decided that she had an important role to play in passing along a message, with which she concluded her presentation. Wiener left the students in the audience with a task: with the number of Holocaust survivors decreasing, she asked that all students continue to share the stories of Holocaust survivors and pass along her message.

“If allowed to survive, hate, bigotry, prejudice, and antisemitism will rear their ugly heads and overtake us again. And God forbid we should have another Holocaust,” Wiener said.

More broadly, she encouraged students to be active in bringing about change and to stand up to the injustice that continues to manifest itself today.

“Don’t be a bystander,” said Wiener. “To be a bystander is as bad as being the perpetrator.”