Students Learn About the Holocaust From Guest Speakers

Seventh grade students had the opportunity to go beyond the book when learning about the Holocaust this spring, thanks to two guest speakers. Former MICDS Middle School Counselor Chrissy Laycob conducted a Zoom presentation before spring break, sharing her family’s Holocaust experience. Noah Kleinlehrer ’22 spoke about his own family’s experience during an in-person assembly in Mary Eliot Chapel.

Chrissy Laycob Zooms In

Laycob has graciously shared her story for years with our students, but this was the first time she did it over Zoom. Mr. Mike Fitzgerald, Middle School History Teacher, introduced Laycob, explaining that students had studied the series of laws that caused the persecution and that the presentation would help frame what happened with historical events. After spring break, the class would dive into the Nuremberg trials and the attempts to bring perpetrators to justice.

Laycob then began her presentation, saying that she was going to share the story and survival of her paternal grandparents Teresa Allerhand and Marurycy Puffeles (Poleski). She spoke about what their lives were like before the Nazi invasion of Poland and about what happened during the Holocaust. “They had incredible strength to survive and never give up, and it’s also a story about how there were incidents of so many ordinary people who risked their lives to help them and not be bystanders.”

Her grandfather was born 1912 and her grandmother in 1917, both in Krakow, Poland. Krakow before the start of WWII was vibrant and had a large Jewish community, similar to in St. Louis right now. Only about 1,000 remain today. It’s a diverse city and Laycob’s grandparents’ families lived there as far as they can trace back. Although they were Jewish, they identified as Polish first.

A variety of photographs accompanied Laycob’s presentation. She showed her grandmother’s family picture before the war. Teresa was the youngest; she had three sisters and a brother and they attended Polish private schools. Most of her friends weren’t Jewish. She was a Girl Scout. Her life before the war was similar to ours now. Her father owned a grocery store, they did very well, and she had a nice, privileged life. She was accepted to university in 1937, and wanted to become a teacher. In her first year of college, all Jewish students had to sit in the back of the classroom. Things started to become more uncomfortable for Jews in what had been normal situations. A petition circled around Teresa’s classroom, pushing to kick all the Jews out of the university. Since most people assumed she wasn’t Jewish, Teresa was handed the petition to sign. She realized then the seeds of what was to come, and soon after she was forced to leave.

Laycob’s grandfather’s family was more involved in traditional Judaism. They went to synagogue and participated in more religious or culturally Jewish programs. He also went to university, graduating with a business degree before Teresa began. He was running a successful paper factory in Krakow, making a variety of goods such as fine stationery and toilet paper.

In September 1939, Krakow was taken over by the German troops. They were quick to come in and establish a Nazi presence, bringing change for all Polish people, not just Jews. For instance, the Nazis renamed the town’s center square Adolph Hitler Plaza.

Soon, all Jewish shops were required to display the Star of David in their front windows to hurt their business. Laycob shared images from history books that show the window signs and photos of Jews wearing armbands with the Star, which began in November 1939. Jews were also forced to be part of a manual labor workforce, shoveling the streets if there was snow or whatever they were told to do. All the schools were now closed to the Jewish people so Teresa was no longer able to continue in university and wasn’t able to graduate.

Laycob remembers her grandfather talking about having to work, having to shovel snow. Jewish stores and businesses were looted and pillaged. Teresa’s father’s store was robbed, and people threw things through the windows.

“When we learn about the Holocaust we go immediately to the concentration camps,” Laycob said. “It’s important to know that it wasn’t immediate. It was a slow, meticulous process where the Jewish people were bullied. There was anti-semitism. There were a lot of people who didn’t know what to do, how to help, a lot of people who were bystanders and did nothing and a lot of people who did stand up to help. Many didn’t believe it could ever get to where it went in history. Nobody at this point could imagine what we know happened. It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly and systematically. People allowed certain things to happen that they shouldn’t have.”

In the summer of 1940, the Jews were told they had three months to leave Krakow. Many stayed. “Why didn’t my family leave?” Laycob asked. “There was a question of where to go. Not many countries were taking these people and Jews from Europe, including the U.S. It was a difficult time across the world. A lot of people stayed and thought things would get better.”

Marurycy sent his younger brother and parents to a small farm town outside of Krakow, thinking they would be safer there, while he stayed in Krakow to run the business. The town was eventually raided by the Nazis and all the Jews there were murdered. “It was extremely difficult for him to talk about,” Laycob said. “He had a lot of guilt. He blamed himself for sending them there and they didn’t survive while he did.”

Teresa’s three sisters were older and married, and they ended up in Siberia with their husbands. Her mother and brother had already died of illness before the invasion, so it was just her and her father. They stayed in Krakow to see what would happen, even though her father no longer had his business. In March 1941, all Jewish families were forced from their homes to live in the Krakow ghetto. They could bring with them only what they could carry. Any Jewish-owned businesses were taken over by non-Jews.

Marurycy’s paper business was taken over by a Jewish trustee who allowed him to stay and work even though he couldn’t own the company. The new owner told the Nazis that Marurycy was needed because he was supplying toilet paper to the troops. This friend took many risks; he kept Laycob’s grandfather on and made sure he was okay. And he turned the other way a lot of times when her grandfather would smuggle paper in and out of the ghetto for people to make false papers.

Living conditions in the ghetto were terrible. They were small and cramped, and there was a lot of sickness and illness. The Nazi way of dealing with overcrowding was to issue random appells, or roll calls, that summoned all the Jews from one section of the ghetto. Teresa spoke of people being loaded onto trucks and taken to concentration camps. One day her section of ghetto was called to the center square for appell, and when they arrived the Nazis were just beginning to load people. One of the German soldiers screamed at her, “Get out of here, mensch.” Mensch means person. Nazis stopped seeing people as human beings, calling them less than humans, animals. “How could anyone do anything as awful as was done to another human being?” asked Laycob. Jews were called unter mensch, or less than human, subhuman. As Teresa’s father was loaded, she ran. That was the last time she ever saw her father. The family isn’t sure which concentration camp Teresa’s father went to, but they are still researching.

Teresa was now alone, in her early 20s, and she returned to the ghetto. She connected with someone she knew from the community who had space where she could stay.

Marurycy, due to his work at the paper factory, had a pass to go in and out of the ghetto. He changed his last name from Puffeles, a very Jewish name, to Poleski, which Laycob describes as being like “Smith” in Poland.

In December 1942, the Nazis closed the Krakow ghetto, sending Jews there to Plaszow, a concentration camp outside the city. By March of the following year, many were murdered, including women and children. Conditions in the Plaszow camp were worse than in the ghetto. Men and women there were forced to endure slave labor.

Laycob then talked about Oskar Schindler, who created a list to take people out of the Plaszow camp to work in his factory. A 14-year-old boy named Moishe Belski had worked for Marurycy in his paper factory, and Marurycy wanted him to go to school instead. He helped pay for Moishe to attend school while still allowing him to work after school. The boy had access to where Schindler’s list was being created, and he made sure to get Marurycy’s name on it. This act of kindness got Marurycy out of the Plazsow concentration camp and into Schindler’s factory and that’s what allowed him to survive. He became an accountant in Schindler’s factory after Schindler found him on the manufacturing floor and could see he wasn’t a metal worker.

The Plaszow concentration camp eventually closed, and Teresa was sent to Auschwitz, the main death camp with the gas chambers. Her life was changed by someone who could not handle seeing the plight of women in the camps. A Nazi officer was disturbed and arranged for a group of women to be taken out of Auschwitz to work in a uniform factory on the border of Czechoslovakia. Teresa learned to sew to save her life.

“There are good records of what happened to a lot of people so we could trace Teresa,” said Laycob. “My grandparents spoke a lot about their time before and after the Holocaust. There was a chunk of time during that was so traumatic they didn’t like to talk about it. We pieced their story together from little bits of stories from them, and trips to Poland and Germany to try to find out.”

Laycob’s father found out about his dad’s benefactor from reading the book Schindler’s List. He realized that it was set in the area where his parents were and began asking questions. Laycob remembers seeing her grandmother’s tattoo from Auschwitz, and said that family members did not ask about it. Marurycy passed away in March 2002 at 89 years old, from Alzheimer’s. Teresa lived a long and full life, dying when she was 96.

How did Marurycy and Teresa find each other after the war? “After liberation, my grandfather kept going back and kept asking about her, looking for her,” Laycob said. He found her, and they tried to start a life in Krakow after the war. Antisemitism was still really high in Poland after the war. Her father was born in Krakow in 1948, and when he was two the family moved to the newly created state of Isreal. Teresa’s three sisters and their families also moved to Isreal from Siberia. After about three years, they moved to Montreal, Canada, where eventually Laycob was born and grew up. “They started all over again in Canada,” she said. Both of Teresa and Marurycy’s sons became successful doctors.

After her formal presentation, the 7th grade history teachers moderated a variety of excellent questions from students, all of which Laycob answered. She wishes her grandparents could be here to tell their own story, and wishes more survivors were still alive to tell their stories. There are only a few left. She encouraged students to visit the St. Louis Holocaust Museum, which frequently features survivors who were young children during the Holocaust. “Now their children and grandchildren are going to be the ones to tell the story,” said Laycob. Fortunately, there are a lot of online testimonials and documentation available.

Thank you to Chrissy Laycob for the virtual visit and the powerful story of her grandparents’ survival of the Holocaust. What a gift for our 7th grade history students!

Noah Kleinlehrer Shares His Family Story

Noah Kleinlehrer also shared his family’s story and information about anti-semitism with the 7th grader class during an in-person presentation in Mary Eliot Chapel, which allowed for all the students to space out safely. Kleinlehrer began by sharing a map that showed where Lodz, Poland is, where his family is from. It had the second-largest Jewish population in Poland before the Holocaust. Noah’s family was poor, like many of the Jews in Lodz, and his grandfather was a gardener. Many other Jews were also manual laborers, like seamstresses and cleaners. He said their industriousness helped them survive the Holocaust.

Kleinlehrer explained that anti-semitism was prevalent even before the Holocaust, and it did not end after. He displayed anti-semitic propaganda posters that were found in everyday places like parks and government buildings.

Lodz was an industrial center before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, and because it was a manufacturing stronghold, the Jewish ghetto survived much longer than others. It wasn’t until 1944 that the main Jewish population was sent to Auschwitz. Less than 500 Jews from Lodz survived the Holocaust.

Kleinlehrer then shared a slide with boxes that showed the names of his family members from Lodz. The next slide showed the fate of each person. Everyone in his family except one died in the Lodz ghetto or were sent to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belson concentration camps, or to Chelmno, an extermination camp 31 miles north of Lodz. None survived, save his grandfather Aron, who escaped the Germans to the Russian Army at the age of 16, after witnessing the murder of his younger sister. Aron survived the war by fighting for the Russian Army, never disclosing that he was Jewish.

After the war, Aron began to travel the world and became known as a “Nazi hunter.” He helped bring many perpetrators to justice. In the 1970s and 80s, after the births of Noah’s father and aunt, Aron and his wife established the Holocaust Museum in Sydney, Australia. He wanted to educate and help people understand the ideas that led to the Holocaust and what it was. He was also a benefactor of many Jewish causes, including Yad Vashem, a famous Holocaust museum in Isreal. He has also supported Jewish education and the preservation of historic sites such as Auschwitz. He saw this as a human rights issue, not just a Jewish issue.

Aron’s wish is for everyone, young and old, to speak out for what they believe in, and to speak up against things that are wrong. Kleinlehrer said it’s important to do this always, even when you see someone bullying someone on the playground or on social media. “Speak out for what you believe in and what you see,” he said. Kleinlehrer also shared his email address and invited students to ask questions and learn more.

Kleinlehrer ended with a powerful quote which is also one of his grandfather’s favorites:

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Eli Wiesel

The 7th grade audience appreciated hearing from their older classmate and had a lot of great questions after. One student asked if Aron is still alive, and Kleinlehrer was happy to report that he is, and will soon be celebrating his 99th birthday. He lives in Australia and is looking forward to receiving a letter from the Queen when he turns 100, a tradition in the British Commonwealth. Where did Noah’s grandfather go to hunt Nazis? He’s been to Argentina, Turkey, and many other places. He spent about 15 years trying to find information and his own inner peace.

Kleinlehrer gave a wonderful presentation to our 7th grade class and included some great advice that is very relevant to their lives today. Thank you, Noah!

In the Upper School recently, JK-12 History and Social Studies Department Chair Carla Federman also shared her family’s story in the Human Rights and Genocide classes. We are so fortunate to have these tremendous resources for our students.