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Holocaust survivor wishes for kindness

Bridget Feeney | Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Not knowing if your family is dead or alive. Not knowing when your next meal will be. Not knowing whether the next hour of your life will bring you freedom or death.

For Aaron Elster, a Holocaust survivor, these sorts of uncertainties were not only a reality, but all he knew as a child.

Elster expressed his wish for mankind in a lecture, “The Power to Make a Difference: Healing the World Through Our Everyday Lives,” which took place at Saint Mary’s on Tuesday.

“I want you to be kind to one another,” he said. “That is not advice. That is my wish.”

Elster, who also co-authored “I Still See Her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust and Hidden Child Aaron Elster,” said it is important to look to the past to learn for the future.

He said the popular expression “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words and names will never hurt me” is not true.

“Words hurt more than physical pain,” he said. “The names you are called and harmful words that are said to you stay with you until adulthood. [It’s] 65 years later, and I still hear the names I was called. I still remember feeling like I was not human.”

Certain images and sights never leave one’s memory, Elster said.

He said he can still recall walking through the ghetto as a young boy of 7 or 8 and seeing the bodies of the dead laying on the streets. The dead, which consisted of men, women and children, are a sight that will never fade with time.

“It’s been over 65 years and some things never go away,” he said. “That scene [of the dead] stays with you forever. You get used to certain atrocities, but never any that affect children.”

Throughout his years living in the ghetto, Elster said he struggled to make sense of all of the changes and deaths he was experiencing.

“I don’t want to die,” he said. “I’m scared of death. Why did I have to be a Jew? Where was God? How can He let this happen? Is there even a God?”

He said his struggle with God and religion only grew stronger after life in the ghetto.

When he was 10, he ran away from the ghetto and spent months sleeping in the forests and fields surrounding the small Polish town that used to be his home. Eventually, a family friend agreed to hide him from the Nazis. The next two years of Elster’s life were spent living in a tiny attic, where he lacked proper food, companionship and sanitary living conditions, he said.

Throughout his talk, Elster encouraged people to think before they act, speak only gentle words and perform small acts of kindness.

“We all have the capacity to help one another in small ways, whether it is through small actions, kind words or acceptance,” he said.

Junior Bridgett Fey said she agreed with Elster that small acts can make a big difference.

“Elster just wants us to be kind and stand up,” she said. “None of us can imagine the horrors he experienced, but we can learn from the history of it all and secure a better future if we take away something from it.”