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Holocaust survivor speaks at Paly


Holocaust survivor Ben Stern spoke to Social Justice Pathway students on Wednesday about his experience during World War II and the importance of learning about survivors’ stories. 

“I want to thank you for giving me the chance to speak,” Stern said. “I know that it’s hard to connect (to me), but I’m here to relay (my story).”

Stern, 101, was born in Poland in 1921 to Jewish parents. He was separated from his family by Nazis at 17 and survived ghettos, death marches and multiple concentration camps. He was liberated by the US army in 1945 and he said he uses his experiences from the Holocaust to advocate for social justice.

Stern showed students his award-winning documentary “Near Normal Man” that tells his story as a Jew during the Holocaust.

Stern’s daughter, Charlene Stern, accompanied him to the speaker event. Charlene Stern is writing a book about her father’s experience, which will be released next week on Amazon’s Barnes and Noble.

Charlene Stern said the main idea she wanted students to take away from the event was that the best way to fight against injustice was to have compassion for others.

“The weapons of courage, kindness and hope are the best way to live a life of integrity, purpose and meaning,” Charlene Stern said. “I encourage everyone to find their courage, kindness and hope because you never know what life has ahead.”

Eleventh grade Social Justice Pathway English teacher Mark Tolentino said he invited Ben and Charlene Stern to speak because SJP students are studying existentialism in the memoir “Night,” written by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

“We’re exploring existence and religion, and the role that it plays (in the book),” Tolentino said. “Students were bringing these theories into their interpretation of Night.”

Tolentino also said the speaker event was a rare opportunity to bring history alive.

“Unfortunately, Holocaust survivors are aging out,” Tolentino said. “We don’t have too many more opportunities to have this (event).”

SJP student Eloise Dumas said the audience was filled with emotion during the event.

“(Ben and Charlene) are so well spoken and profound,” Dumas said. “People were just crying in the audience.”

Dumas also said the speaker event was helpful in putting what students learned into perspective.

“You read about the Holocaust, but it’s not that real to you,” Dumas said. “But then you get someone who’s an actual Holocaust survivor, and that makes it so much more real.”

Charlene Stern said Ben Stern’s mission to advocate for oppressed groups and to show kindness to everyone following his experiences in the Holocaust was inspirational.

“My father’s story is the story of someone who lost everything,” Charlene Stern said. “He picked himself up, let go of hate and went on to open his heart to the world.”

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