Vigilance against hate as important today as ever, say Midwest Center for Holocaust Education speakers at SM East

Sonia Warshawski, who was shot in the chest the day British soldiers liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but survived and started a new life in the United States. She spoke to students and parents at Shawnee Mission East on Tuesday.
Sonia Warshawski, who was shot in the chest the day British soldiers liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but survived and started a new life in the United States. She spoke to students and parents at Shawnee Mission East on Tuesday.

For Regina Kort, it’s the image of her young mother, then just 18, shot in the chest as English soldiers moved in to free Bergen-Belsen, having survived the horrors of concentration camps only to face death just as she was on the brink of liberation.

For Steven Cole, it’s the eerie absence of any grandparents from his family memories.

Kort and Cole — along with Kort’s mother Sonia Warshawski, who improbably survived the gunshot wound, and emigrated to the United States to start a new life — were the featured speakers Tuesday at an event organized by the Shawnee Mission East Jewish Student Union to raise awareness about the dangers of hatred and political rhetoric that singles a group of people for scorn.

SM East junior Laura Martasin decided to organize the event in the wake of the anti-Semitic messages spray painted on a school shed the night before the SM East-SM South basketball game. One SM South student was charged for the vandalism, which included swastikas and the words “East loves Nazi.”

“We wanted to speak out about that and respond,” Martasin said about the motivations for organizing the event.

Cole, who is the father of a Shawnee Mission East student, and Kort are both speakers with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, and travel frequently to middle and high schools to share personal stories of how the Holocaust continues to impact their families nearly 75 years later.

Cole showed the hundred or so attendees photos of his parents — relaxing in a lake, taking tea on a veranda, participating in high school sports — prior to Kristallnacht, stressing how well integrated German Jews were into their communities prior to Hitler’s rise to power. Shortly after Hilter’s ascension, though, the Nazis anti-Semitic political rhetoric turned their lives upside down. They started having to carry identification with them. The government issued rules preventing non-Jews from entering their home. As the anti-Jewish fervor increased, his parents managed to get out of the country and secure passage to the United States. His grandparents weren’t so lucky.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side thought Hitler would never last, and he stayed along with his wife…and most of the previous generation,” Cole recalled. “All of them ended up in concentration camps, and were killed in Izbica, Poland, 800 miles from their home.”

Cole stressed that the shift from being well accepted in their communities to being part of a persecuted minority came quickly.

“My mother always felt that she was a German like you would think of yourself like an American citizen,” Cole said. “Their family had been active in the community, they had served in the army, and then one day the Germans decided these people were no longer Germans.”

Warshawski, who is now over 90, spoke briefly at the end of the presentation, imploring the attendees to educate themselves about the history of the Holocaust so that its lessons would never be forgotten.

Cole struck a similar tone earlier in the evening.

“We can’t have this become a, ‘So what?’ part of history, because we have pockets of hate today in our own society,” he said.