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American students hear Holocaust love story

Study tour brings high school students into contact with sites and survivors of World War II.

Pavel Stransky, 89, who survived nearly two-and-a-half years in three concentration camps during World War II, talks to American students after their visit to the Jewish Ghetto Muzeum in Terezin, Czech Republic in April 2010. (Bruce I. Konviser/GlobalPost)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — For a group of high school students visting here from New Jersey, talking with 89-year-old Pavel Stransky was like having a character from a history book step off the page to recall a love story that collided with the darkest days of the Holocaust.

The scene was the winter of 1943 and after two years in the Terezin concentration camp Stransky, who was then a 22-year-old Jew from Prague, was facing deportation to Auschwitz. He was also deeply in love.

He had met the girl of his dreams — a striking brunette named Vera Stadler — five years earlier.

It was a riveting tale of remembrance. And the students were mesmerized as Stransky calmly unfolded his tale of war and love at a time in history that seems almost impossible to fathom, but which the trip’s organizers deeply believe needs to be remembered.

Remembrance is the goal of the Holocaust Study Tour 2010, which brought 11 American high school students to the Czech Republic to reach back 70 years into the past.

Stransky continued his story of survival as the students listened at a gathering in a hotel here over the weekend.

“We met during summer holiday in 1938,” he said. “I was 17, she was 16, and she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

But now he had a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. The young lovers couldn't bear to be separated, but the only way she could go with him was if she was his wife.

“So the day before [my departure] we got married; and we spent our wedding night in front of 2,500 unhappy prisoners,” he said. “And our honeymoon was to the greatest extermination camp — Birkenau.”

Colleen Tambuscio, who teaches a course on the Holocaust and Genocide at New Milford High School in New Jersey, is the trip's chief organizer.

She said the idea to bring students to the land where the Holocaust happened occurred to her after she took a similar trip for teachers in 1997.

“My feeling after I went on that trip was — 'if you are going to do this for anybody you should do it for students,'” Tambuscio said.

This is her 10th trip, and 120 students have accompanied her so far. But this type of hands on history doesn't come cheaply. The trip costs $5,500 per student. A mix of private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations make the trip possible, she said.

But Tambuscio doesn't want the students to merely touch history. She wants them to apply it to the world they live in.

“I hope they take away a better understanding of the history,” Tambuscio said, “but more importantly I hope they take away a sense of responsibility for heeding the warnings of genocide in our society; and not only in America but around the world.”