History was brought to life as Holocaust survivor Hershel Greenblat shared his story.
Greenblat spoke to Lyman Hall Elementary fifth-grade students Wednesday about his family’s escape, first from the Nazis and then from communists.
“We will go on a trip,” he said. “We’ll be starting in the Ukraine and Poland. This story is about two people who (lost) everyone in their family to the Germans.
“Out of the 9 million Jews between 1938 and 1945, 6 million of the Jewish population of Europe were killed,” he said. “Either they were hanged, gas chamber, crematorium or shot in the back of the head. Two million of those Jewish people were kids about your age or younger. Think about that.”
In 1939, when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Greenblat’s father joined a resistance group. After trying to fight back the invasion, he escaped into Ukraine where he met and married Greenblat’s mother.
Greenblat was born in 1941, and lived his early years with his family in the Priest’s Grotto of Ukraine, a cave that provided many Jewish families refuge during World War II.
After Greenblat’s birth, the family moved into Russia. In September 1945, just after the war ended, his father was eager to move his family again.
“My father and his friends knew that life under communism was no better than life under the Nazis,” Greenblat said.
The family, which had expanded by this point to include a younger sister, escaped to the American zone of Austria, where it was housed in a displaced persons camp. These “DP camps” were set up after the war to provide shelter for hundreds of thousands displaced Jews.
The first camp the family stayed in grouped all of the families in one large room, Greenblat said. People hung curtains for privacy. At night, he slept on the floor as rats scurried by.
A year later, they moved to another DP camp where they were given a small room. Though the family still slept on the floors, the room was heated and offered more privacy.
When the United States opened to immigration, Greenblat’s mother immediately placed the family on the waiting list. In November 1950, the family — which by then included a second sister — boarded a ship to America.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Greenblat’s father woke him up around 3 a.m.
“He said, ‘There’s something you need to see,’” Greenblat said. “He took me up on board and there, in the darkness, everything lit up. To this day, in my opinion, I saw the most beautiful sight you would ever want to see.”
It was the Statue of Liberty.
After spending his youth running first from Nazis and then from Russians, Greenblat said he finally felt a sense of “coming home.”
The family went through Ellis Island, and the children received boxes from the Red Cross, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a washcloth and a package of gum. It was Greenblat’s first toothbrush.
A few days later, the family was put on a train to Atlanta to begin a new American life.
The family moved into an apartment on Capitol Avenue, across from where Turner Field is now. After being injured on the job, Greenblat’s father took a loan of $1,500 and purchased a small grocery store near the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
It was there they met Martin Luther King Jr. Greenblat’s father bonded with King over the similarities between how Jewish people were treated in Nazi Germany and how African-Americans were treated in the United States.
“To this day, he’s someone I’m honored to know,” Greenblat said.
And his mother gave birth to another son, giving her four children born in four different countries, he said.
As any proud father and grandfather would, he showed pictures of his family members and grandchildren. But it wasn’t simply to share their accomplishments.
“You may say, why am I showing you these pictures?” he said. “Because of my mom and my dad, and what they did to bring us to the United States. And we were able to have a life. We were able to contribute. We didn’t perish like 6 million Jews.”
He implored the young students to remember his story, and to share it with their family members and friends.
“I’m giving you the responsibility for you all to remember what happened,” he said. “It is your responsibility to not let it happen again.\
“Please don’t forget, America is the greatest country in the world. It gives you the opportunity to become whatever you want to be. There are no limits to what you can do. There are no limits to what you can become. I can see in front of me doctors, scientists, teachers. But you have to remember what happened.”