By Lauren Cabral and Carla Huskins
The Cove Herald
"You must remember how beautiful it is to be free."
Those were the words Mike Jacobs used to open his address to an auditorium full of ninth-grade students at Copperas Cove High School on Wednesday morning.
He should know. Jacobs, or Mendel Jacubowicz, as he was known in Poland, was seized by the Nazis at the age of 14, and spent the next five-and-a-half years in concentration camps and Jewish ghettos. Out of his 80 extended family members, Jacobs was the sole survivor of the tragedy of the Holocaust.
His visit was prompted by an ongoing genocide awareness project in Tamie Felty's freshman English class. Upon studying the 1960 novel "Night," the young students were not only able to analyze the series of tragic events that occurred, but were also in "awe and shock" when they realized the trend of genocide continues within today's society.
"From this project, we want to affect changes in the world right now," Felty said to the students gathered in Lea Ledger Auditorium. "We want to change the present and learn about the past. The next step is doing something about it."
So in order to promote a groundbreaking change at the local level, Felty and the students collaborated to create an idea of spreading awareness of genocide prevention. They sold ribbons, reading "Stop Genocide Now," to their fellow students, which served as tickets to a film titled "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
They raised more than $1,100, allowing them to donate funds to genocide-fighting charities, and giving them the opportunity to hear an inspirational and emotional presentation from Jacobs.
Jacobs was born in the small Polish town of Konin in 1925. In 1939, shortly after the Nazi army invaded Poland, the Jakubowicz family was forced to pack into a boxcar with 75 to 100 people who possessed the similar "undesirable trait" - being Jewish.
The family was then transported to a ghetto in Ostrowiec in which became the most tragic turning point in Jacob's life.
Shortly after the move, his parents, two brothers, and two sisters were murdered in the Treblinka death camp. Another brother was killed while
fighting the Nazis with partisans. Jacobs was later transported to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and then Mathausen-Gusen II. He endured severe and cruel human conditions at the camps while receiving minimal food and slumbering in beds that held up to six people.
Most of all, Jacobs was stripped of his authentic identity, freedoms, and culture.
"I wasn't human anymore, just a number," Jacobs said, showing to the audience the number that had been tattooed on his left forearm at a concentration camp many years ago.
Despite the series of trials while losing his family and experiencing the horrific conditions of the death camps, Jacobs still continued to carry a positive outlook on life.
"I never gave up my hope and belief," said Jacobs.
As a result of this steadfast dedication and mere fate, Jacobs was liberated by the Americans and removed from Mathausen-Gusen II on May 5, 1945.
Jacobs showed slides of pictures he'd taken on a recent visit to Poland and the camps he'd been in, recalling how his family had asked how he could smile while retracing the steps through a gate leading to a camp that symbolized so much hate.
"Now I can smile because I can walk in and walk out anytime I want to. I am free," Jacobs said.
He now celebrates this cherished freedom with his wife, Ginger Chesnick Jacobs, whom he met in Dallas shortly upon his arrival within the United States in 1951.
After being freed, he'd spent time studying and working as a shopkeeper in Germany until receiving his papers to emigrate to America. He later started a scrap metal recycling company, an area he had expertise in due to his duties in Auschwitz.
Jacobs has volunteered his time extensively as a lecturer and has shared his experiences with numerous high schools, churches, civic groups, and universities.
He is the founder and former president of the Holocaust Survivors group in Dallas and is also the founder of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, dedicated to the memory of the 11 million Jews and non-Jews lost in one of history's most catastrophic genocide events.
When asked if he had ever lost faith in humanity during the event, Jacobs replied with the selfless answer of "No, never," adding that is the message he wishes for all of his audience members to receive.
Following the presentation, students were invited to take photographs with Jacobs, and several expressed their excitement at his visit.
"We never thought it would actually happen until it happened," said Darius Sherman of Jacobs' visit.
Sherman, a student in Felty's class, added that even with all of his studying, hearing Jacobs speak gave him a better understanding of the Holocaust.
"It got real," he said.
Other students came in with little background knowledge, and said they'd been moved by what they heard.
"I didn't know anything, really, about it," said Elijah Timarky. "It made me realize more about history, and how thankful I am … and it's crazy how he didn't give up hope or his belief in God."
His friend Jacob Ponsetti, who admitted he wasn't familiar with the historical event either, had a similar reaction.
"It just made me realize how important life is, and not to take it for granted."
Felty noted she'd given surveys to all ninth-graders a few weeks ago, and found only about 13 percent knew of the Holocaust. The campaign of her students changed that number, she said.
"I think it was a very impactful day for a lot of us."
She said she was proud of the work her class had done to raise awareness of the event.
"The fact that they were passionate about it, interested and wanted to do something to affect change in the world today," Felty said. "As a teacher, that's what we're here for."
Contact Lauren Cabral at email@example.com or (254) 501-7476.