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Stonington — A concentration camp survivor and a medic who liberated a camp during World War II visited Pawcatuck Middle School Monday to share a message they each embrace:
"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted," speaker Ben Cooper, the medic, said.
About 80 eighth-grade students attended the event at the school library as a culmination of their curriculum on the Holocaust. Yellow butterflies, crafted by the students, decorated the room to symbolize hope, as well as the innocence lost during the Holocaust.
Concentration camp survivor Henny Simon of Colchester, who was born in Hanover, Germany, told students about her experiences in ghettos and work camps in Latvia and Poland during the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of more than 6 million Jews and 5 million others persecuted by the Nazis.
As she read aloud from her memoir, "Am I My Brother's Keeper?: The Story of A Holocaust Survivor," she recounted days of near-starvation, digging trenches and a death march under the Nazis. Though she was liberated in Koronowo, Poland, by the Russian army, she would never see her mother again.
Simon, who immigrated to the United States and raised a family, said she hopes that by hearing her story, others would understand the importance of perseverance.
When Simon was sick, cold and hungry, and suffering from a frost-bitten toe, she remembered the words her ailing mother told her:
"She said, 'It can't get any worse. It can only get better. Once you reach the bottom, you can only go up. You are young, you have to survive,'" Simon recalled. "And survive I did."
Simon said her biggest regret was not being allowed to finish her education. She said that although Adolf Hitler took away everything from people, he couldn't take away their "integrity, knowledge and hope."
"Never give up, and follow your dreams," she told the students.
Speaker Ben Cooper, who helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp as a medic with the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division, also shared his experiences of the war.
A Jewish war veteran who was born in Avon and now lives in West Hartford, Cooper showed students helmets and models of B-17 planes - as well as a red flag with swastikas that had adorned a building in Munich - to help depict the period. He told students about the starvation of people and the burning of human flesh at the crematoriums at the concentration camp.
Emphasizing the importance of kindness, Cooper spoke against bullying and told students that all people belong to one race - the human race - though it seems it is easily forgotten today with messages from hate groups on the Internet and conflicts in the world.
Both speakers were from The Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Holocaust Resource Center in New London.