Holocaust survivor speaks to Heidelberg history class
March 25, 2011
- High school student recounts grandfather's escape from the Nazis
- Simon Steil shares his dramatic child hood with Heidelberg High School students during a special visit
- World History students hear a first hand account of the horrors Steil faced
HEIDELBERG, Germany - Heidelberg High SchoolStudents at Heidelberg High School had just finished the last day of Terra Nova testing Friday. I was off to history class.
As I thought about it, I realized we are in a unique situation.
We live in a city with so much history and located so close to so much other history.
It's a past my teenage counterparts in the states will only learn from books, while I have been lucky enough to walk in the footsteps of those before me.
On a trip to Waterloo, I walked the fields where Napoleon was defeated.
In Versailles, I toured the palace.
In Bastogne, I hiked the trails of the Battle of the Bulge, and in Normandy I walked the beaches the liberators landed on.
But today was different.
Today in my history class we had a guest speaker, a Holocaust survivor willing to come and share his story with my 11th grade World History class.
His story almost sounded like a chapter out of our history book, yet here was a real, live man standing there.
But this wasn't just any man.
This was my grandfather, Simon Steil. Growing up I had heard bits and pieces of his story but listening to him speak to my history class, I realized he truly has a story to tell.
At the young age of about 4, his parents, older brother and aunt were "deported."
Not deported in the sense many understand it, i.e. thrown out of a country, but rather deported to a camp, a concentration camp or work camp.
He would never see or hear from his parents or brother again.
Left on his own as a very young child, he was picked up by the mayor of the village of Perwez, Belgium. About 30 other Jewish kids were there as well.
The mayor called the town's people together and distributed the children, one child to each family.
These families would hide the Jewish children; shield them from the Nazis and those out to complete "the bigger plan."
These towns' people risked their lives for Jewish children, for if they were caught they, too, would have been killed.
As a young boy, my grandfather remembers trying to get a peek out of a window from behind the drawn curtains and being scolded for going near a window. He couldn't play outside and sometimes had to hide - not hide as in hide and seek, but rather hide because the Gestapo was doing a sweep of the house looking for Jews.
I can only imagine what went through his mind as he hid under a floor in the maid's quarters. He could not go to school or go play outside because he had to hide.
Eventually he was moved to a Jewish orphanage.
He remembered being awakened in the middle of the night by a flashlight shined in his face. He would find out why years later: The Gestapo was searching for children over 14.
If they were found, they would be taken away.
Everyone knew what it meant to be taken away.
It was their death sentence.
In 1945, the liberation came.
American troops rolled into the village of Perwez and he could be a part of society again.
Placed in an orphanage for Jewish children, he spent the next several years moving around waiting for some family member, regardless of how distant, to claim him.
He was lucky. An aunt and uncle who had escaped to Switzerland at the beginning of the war recognized him. Through Jewish orphanage organizations, he was sent to live with yet a different aunt who had emigrated to the United States prior to the war.
He went to live in New York and became an American citizen.
He showed us a few photos he found after many years of searching.
He has been back to Perwez and searched the archives and visited what is left of the family that took him in and put their lives on the line.
He talked to anyone he could find from those years that was still alive in the village. Unfortunately there are few.
He doesn't remember what his brother looks like and he never will - he couldn't find any photos of him. I sat there in my history class, almost forgetting that this remarkable man telling his horrifying story is my grandfather.
Thank you, Grandpa.