Speaking to a packed multipurpose room at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Ahwatukee Foothills on Monday, Otto Schimmel told students about his experience in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

Schimmel, 84, who also took questions from students after speaking, emphasized the idea of being accepting of all races, ethnicities, and religions.

“All you have to do is go through a hardship to realize it’s not that hard to get along with each other,” Schimmel said.

More than 390 eighth-grade students heard from the survivor, who was born in Hungary, as part of their social studies curriculum.

Schimmel came to the United States at age 21 with his wife. He had spent six weeks at Auschwitz building an underground factory and was the only one from his family to survive. He still remembers the way the concentration camp was run, from the separation of men, women, and children, and the inhumane torture that took on various forms.

Matthew Thomas, a social studies teacher at Akimel, said this experience for students to hear a first-hand account was crucial.

“It’s important that the students work with primary source to help them understand the importance,” Thomas said.

What the students didn’t expect, however, was the survivor’s honest sense of humor and appreciation for life.

While most would assume that someone would be bitter or angry at the world for his experiences, the students saw that he isn’t angry, Thomas said.

Schimmel said he went back to Auschwitz years ago, to see the rubble from the building he used to work on. Keeping a small piece of concrete from the site, which now serves as a paperweight on his desk, Schimmel said it reminds him not of the horror that was the Holocaust, but his friends.

“It’s always neat when history can come alive,” Thomas said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or dmartinez@ahwatukee.com. Follow her on Twitter @dmartinezAFN.

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