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Study tour brings high school students into contact with sites and survivors of World War II.
The students began their trip last week in Berlin, and this week they'll visit other parts of the Czech Republic and then travel to Auschwitz before returning home.
Rebecca McCarten, a sophomore at New Milford High School, said the trip has given her a whole new perspective.
“A different view on life and to appreciate what I have more,” she said. “I can't stop a genocide from happening but ... I can give my views on it, and keep passing the word on.”
Back before the students, Stransky calmly recalled how his father had committed suicide before the war, in order to avoid the nightmare Stransky would eventually endure. He told the students of a horrific train ride to Auschwitz in which many didn't survive. And those who did couldn't grasp the magnitude of the horror that lay before them.
“Prisoners from the main camp at Auschwitz ... whispered in our ears, 'You see the smoke and the chimneys? This is the only way out from Auschwitz — through the chimneys,'" Stransky said. “And we didn't understand what a nonsense they are talking about. Later, of course, we found out.”
Ninety percent of the 1.1 million people who perished at Auschwitz were Jews, and virtually all of them were gassed to death.
Miraculously both Stransky and his wife survived seven months in Auschwitz.
“On July 1, 1944, I was on the first transport out, and left Auschwitz alive — not through the
chimney.” But then he lost contact with his beloved Vera.
By April 1945, it was clear Germany would lose the war, but Stransky's survival hung in the balance. For him the war ended with a 19-day death march over 124 miles.
“On May 7, 1945, the SS suddenly stopped our march and went away,” he said. “And we stood free on the road. I weighed only 70 pounds. If the march had lasted another day or two I would have died.”
The students sat in stunned silence.
Nathali Arias, a junior at McNair high school in Jersey City said Stransky's tale was spectacular.
“I thought it was like a Hollywood story,” she said.
So far on this journey, she added, “We really haven't heard much happy endings. The fact that it's true, and that sparkle in his eyes when he was talking about it — I was moved. I couldn't believe it.”
Historian Shalmi Barmore gives the students perspective as they travel around the region
“What we're actually teaching them beyond the history is to look at things; to absorb things from different perspectives and to think about them,” he said. “We're not trying to give a synopsis or a one-word lesson.”
As for Stransky, he finally made his way back to Prague and slowly began to recuperate.
“Two months later, in July 1945, on the happiest day of my life, my wife rang the doorbell,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “She stood before me as beautiful as ever. That's why I say our holocaust story was also a love story.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct where Pavel Stransky met with students. It was also updated to make a spelling correction.