It is one thing to act out a play. It is quite another to come face-to-face with the reality behind the script.
When Lafayette High School students began rehearsing for their fall production of The Diary of Anne Frank, drama teacher Cindy Kewin decided she wanted to make it a lesson they would never forget.
So after rehearsal last Thursday afternoon, the students crowded into Kewin's classroom to listen to Oscar Haber tell about his experiences as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.
Haber is one of the few people still alive who suffered Nazi persecution as an adult. As the 100-year-old man began speaking in a soft voice with a Polish accent, the room full of teenagers fell silent.
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"I talk in different schools and it is always painful," Haber said. But it is a story that must be told, he added, and it must not be forgotten. Nazi Germany may be gone, but racism, bigotry and xenophobia are never far away.
Haber was a young dentist in Krakow when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Many times over the next six years, Haber said, he and his wife, Fryda, narrowly escaped death.
After trying unsuccessfully to flee the German advance on foot, walking several hundred miles, Haber returned to his village near Krakow. Nazi SS troops built a labor camp there, and soon it was filled with Jews from across Poland.
Haber asked to become the camp dentist, which allowed him to continue living at home and practicing dentistry in the village. But in late 1941, Haber's camp pass was revoked. Then the village police chief, a friend and dental patient, told him a secret.
"He was the only one in the village who spoke German, and the SS came to him and told him a lot of things," Haber said, his voice breaking and his eyes growing damp. "He said, 'It comes a very bitter time for you. You are all going to be killed. But I am going to help you.'"
The police chief arranged for Haber and his wife to get a Christian marriage certificate and leave the village. "He told me, 'You don't look Jewish and your wife doesn't look Jewish,'" Haber said.
But there was a hitch: the police chief could not issue the certificate without his secretary's help. She was a friend of Haber's, too, but feared for her family. "She said, 'If they catch you, they will not kill you until you tell them who made these papers for you,'" he said.
Haber had hidden a pistol, and he promised the secretary he would kill himself if the Germans caught him. "You know me," he said he told her. "I am a man of honor. They will not catch me alive."
The Habers left with the fake papers and lived for more than a year as farm workers in another part of Poland. But someone discovered their secret. Returning home one day, the Habers saw the Gestapo waiting for them, and they fled into a nearby forest.
Haber sought out a policeman he had befriended. He hid the Habers in the attic of his barn for two nights until he could arrange for them to live with his relatives in another town. "I think all through the war there was an angel with me," Haber said.
The Habers remained in hiding until "the so-called liberation," he said. "But we didn't have anywhere to go. No money, no clothes, no home. Nothing."
In 1946 the Habers created a ruse to travel from Russian-occupied Poland to Belgium, where they lived for five years before emigrating to Israel. After 28 years there, Haber moved to Lexington to be near his son.
"You are the future, and it depends on you," Haber finally told the students, who had sat spellbound for more than an hour. "Some of you will be in power. Remember that what happens shouldn't happen."
The students had a few questions, and then Rowan Schaefer, 15, asked Haber if she could hug him. When class was dismissed, several other girls and boys approached Haber to thank him and offer hugs.
"I honestly don't know how to put it into words," Schaefer said when I asked what she thought of Haber's talk. "I think if everyone got to hear something like that only once, there would be much less hurt in the world."