Students at Horizon Honors Secondary School in Ahwatukee heard living history last week as a survivor of the Nazis Holocaust told them about his life under Hitler’s regime.
Horizon was the “85th or 86th” Valley school that 91-year-old Oskar Knoblauch of Phoenix said he has visited this school year alone as part of his efforts to ensure that no one forgets one of the history’s darkest periods.
"What a wonderful opportunity for our children and staff to experience this primary source of history that no textbook or teacher could replace," said Horizon Honors Secondary School Principal Cynthia Shaheen.
Knoblauch began his hour-long presentation in a way that surprised some students – telling them how they needed to “accept people for what they are” and “respect your enemies.”
“I did and it paid off big,” he said. “Because of that we three siblings survived.”
Knoblauch was only 7 years old when Hitler began his rise to power.
He recounted the book burnings, the speeches that blamed Jews for Germany’s economic woes and Hitler’s repeated promise “to make Germany great again.”
Knoblauch’s parents foresaw the worst and moved the family to Krakow, Poland, in 1936.
For the following three years, life again showed signs of peace. “We had hoped this move would return us to a normal life, but it was not to be,” Knoblauch recalled.
Soon after the German occupation of Poland in 1939, new laws and restrictions were imposed against the Jewish population.
Knoblauch displayed one of those restrictions on his arm: a white band with the star of David.
In March 1941, a 9-foot walled Jewish ghetto was erected and his family was assigned to one room in an apartment building. Forced labor, meager food rations and deportations of ghetto dwellers to concentration camps began as early as mid-1941. This continued until the ghetto’s liquidation in March 1943, he said.
The family was separated from his mother, who was sent to the slave labor camp Plaszow. The remainder, with 116 other Jews, were assigned to work at the sub-camp, Pomorska, headquarters for the Gestapo and two other branches of Hitler’s internal security forces.
While working as forced laborers, Knoblauch’s father was murdered in 1944 by one of the officers. Knoblauch, his sister and brother escaped from Pomorska on Jan. 17, 1945, a day before they were liberated by the Soviet Army.
That summer, they were reunited with their mother, but post-war Europe was hardly better for surviving Jews, as resentment intensified in the devastated countries. They immigrated to Canada on June 11, 1949, and he eventually came to the United States and settled in Phoenix, operating a day-care center.
As he related the increasing brutality of the Nazis, Knoblauch used a projector to display pictures of his family, photos of the ovens and other ghastly scenes from concentration camps and one frame that carried a message: “Respect is like a boomerang. You have to give it away to get it back.”
He explained how his friendly and cooperative manner with Nazis security officers and concentration camp guards spared him from more savage cruelties.
But at the same time, he recalled, “I was surrounded by bullies.”
“Why would you want to cloud your mind with so much hate?” he asked rhetorically. “Hate hurts you more than the people you actually hate.”
He quoted Martin Luther King, saying, “We must learn to live together like brothers or we will perish together.”
Knoblauch appeared to have a sobering effect on the students, many of whom seemed deep in thought after the session ended.
Junior Arianna Drapkin said Knoblauch “taught me to keep more of an open mind toward people.”
Senior Cameron Noble said, “I thought it was pretty beautiful.”
“I really connected with his message of keeping an open mind and having love in your heart,” Cameron added. “And I thought some of the patterns he discussed were relevant. It’s necessary we learn from the past because there obviously are correlations between what he talked about and what we are seeing in this country now.
“I would say it improved me. I already have the same values he spoke of, but he gave me even more reason for believing what I believe.”