Never Forget by Jamie Butler

Jamie, senior hospitality management major, has been an active part of Jewish life on campus, as former student President and trusty Hillel chef, Jamie’s passion for and commitment to Jewish life is undeniable. When Jamie arrived on campus, she had her own mission – to bring Holocaust education and awareness to Penn State and State College. Read about her journey below and thousands of students and community members she’s impacted along the way.

Growing up in a Jewish home and attending Hebrew School, I was educated on the atrocities of the Holocaust and the impact it had on the Jewish people and the world. When I was 12 years old, I had my first interaction with a survivor of the Holocaust, Irene Zisblatt. Like many other victims, her story was one of hardship, bravery, strength, and hope. Irene’s experience in the Holocaust brought her to multiple concentration campus, a victim of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments, and a death march. I was so inspired by her courage and wisdom, I became invested in learning about World War II, the Holocaust, and other genocides throughout history.

Five years later, I had the pleasure to see Irene speak again. She shared her story with my high school and again, I was moved. After her speech, I decided to enroll in my high school’s Holocaust and Genocide class. Looking back, I recognize the privilege of taking a class like that and how unique of an opportunity it is to learn about the Holocaust in a public high school. The class opened my eyes to the magnitude of World War II. Not only did this war destroy Germany, it reached as far as Italy and even Japan. Most importantly, this class gave meaning to the words “Never Forget”; words I’ve heard before but now carried so much history and so much power. Those words are not only about the millions and millions of people were brutally murdered, but they remind us of the damage the Nazi Regime committed before, during, and after the war. Their mission was to eliminate all race, religion, ethnicity, culture, sexual preference, etc. that was not their own.

I graduated high school and left for a college with a new mission. I wanted to continue educating myself, but I wanted to educate others; I wanted to act on those words, “Never Forget”. I sought out the support of Hillel and began bringing Holocaust survivors to campus for speaking engagements.

During the fall of my freshman year, I brought David Tuck to campus. David was 10 years old when he and his family were relocated to the Lodi ghetto. David spent much of his time in Labor Camps in Poland where he built anti-aircraft guns that the Nazis used. In early 1945, David was sent to Gusen II, an underground factory in Austria where workers constructed German aircrafts. About 5 months after his arrival in Gusen II, Tuck was liberated by the Americans. His skillset was unique and it ultimately saved his life.

I remember David telling me how humbling his experience on campus was.  He couldn’t believe the number of people that flooded the auditorium and neither could I. There were students, staff, community members and their children sitting wall to wall listening to David speak. Holocaust education wasn’t a norm on campus, or in the State College community, so David’s visit was special. After David’s time on campus, I knew that I had to continue this work as long as I was in the community.

The next year, Penn State Hillel partnered with a sorority on campus to bring Sonia Goldstein. Sonia’s visit was unique because she is the grandmother of Penn State student. Sonia had shared her story with her family and close friends, but never in front of such a large crowd. Sonia shared that her father, mother, brother, aunt, and cousin were 5 of the 4,000 that survived Vilna Ghetto before transferring to separate, larger camps. She, along with the other women in her family, was sent to Stutthof where they spent 4 aching years. In 1945, the when the Russians were on the verge of defeating the Germans, the Germans decided to march the living out of the campus. Sonia, her family, and the women in their barrack marched for days until they reached a stable. Sonia knew that her life was at stake but fortunately the Russians came through just before it was too late. Sonia and her family traveled to Munich where they were reunited with her father and brother whom had survived Dachau. After several years recuperating in a refugee camps, Sonia and her entire family immigrated to the United States to begin a new life.

Sonia’s time on campus was tremendous. I was honored see a survivor stand up and speak to her granddaughter, and her granddaughter’s peers, and I was touched to be a part of their experience. Unlike many, Sonia was freed and able to build a beautiful life in America which was represented that day on campus. Together, Sonia and her granddaughter were able to educate just over one thousand – students, faculty, and community members and even schools in the area that used Sonia’s program as a field trip for their students to gain a first-hand retelling of history.

In my last spring on campus, I wanted to bring that someone who made an impact on my life and inspired this whole journey. I decided to bring Irene Zisblatt, the woman that ignited my passion for Holocaust and Genocide education and awareness. This year, the program would be bigger than ever. The response from David and Sonia was so positive, that I knew we needed to continue to provide these stories as a resource for the community.

This year, Penn State Hillel partnered with a number of the biggest organizations on campus. These organizations would help spread awareness even more that we had the past two years. We wanted as many people as possible present to hear Irene’s story. Irene spoke to over 2,400 students, parents, and community members during her time in State College. She spoke to Hillel professionals about her Jewish identity; she shared a meal with Penn State students where they asked difficult questions about her time in the concentration camps, the experiments she endured, and what it was like to be liberated; and, she spoke to local high school students about her entire experience and the importance of education knowing this might be their only encounter with a survivor.

For me, the most meaningful part of Irene’s visit was the reaction from the high school students. I’ve heard Irene speak a number of times so I knew what parts might evoke emotion from the crowd. At those times, I turned around in my seat and watched. I saw the eyes of thousands locked on Irene listening closely to her story while holding hands in comfort. The story was resonating with them and bringing reality to their studies in the classroom. In these moments, I was reminded of myself at that age. Eager and willing to learn beyond what I was reading in the textbooks. I was reminded of how important it is to see and feel the emotion behind the words of each survivor how their stories are what we need to remember.

Today, mass crimes and violence may not directly impact the Jewish people but, genocides have occurred time and time again throughout history. From Rawanda, to Armenia, Uganda, Cambodia, the First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars, and Darfur, these acts will never be okay. Most recently, the Syrian government has been using chemical warfare on their own civilians. These acts against humanity are dehumanizing and immoral. If they don’t stop soon, millions of people will continue to perish due to crimes committed on them by their own government.

I am so grateful for the organizations that helped make this week so successful and to the people who have supported me every step of the way for the past three years. It has been remarkable to be able to impact over 3,800 people in the short time that I’ve been at Penn State. I’m honored to have been able to share David Tuck, Sonia Goldstein, and Irene Zisblatt with the community so that everyone knows to “Never Forget”. This university has provided me the room to grow and explore myself in ways I could never imagine possible and am forever grateful for. Thank you to the parents, alumni, students, and community members who make Penn State what it is and providing students with opportunities of a lifetime.