It has been 74 years since the end of World War II and in that time, much has changed but much remains the same. People throughout the world still face hatred, bigotry, and cruelty for no other reason than their appearance or their beliefs.
How to recognize this discrimination that still exists and, more importantly, how to confront it is the meaningful message behind the words of Sam Devinki who spoke Wednesday morning at Smith-Cotton High School. Devinki is a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
Devinki spoke to the Democrat prior to his presentations to students at Smith-Cotton explaining it is important for him to speak on the horrors members of his family endured at the hands of the Nazis because “if I don’t and others like me don’t, all that happened will be forgotten.”
“What is unfortunate is that it still applies today in this country and around the world,” he continued. “People still face hatred, bigotry, racism and anti-semitism – my hope is that people will recognize this when it happens and will do something about it when they face it.”
S-C World History teacher Ashley Young invited Devinki to address the students after hearing Devinki speak at a second-generation Holocaust survivor panel at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, presented by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.
Young has brought his students to the discussion for the last two years.
“While all of the speakers on the panel have incredible stories about their parents survival, Mr. Devinki’s is exceptional,” Young commented. “He is an incredible storyteller and his message of not accepting hatred, prejudice, and discrimination on any level is very powerful to hear in this day and age.
“I feel that it is very important to have students interact with opportunities like this because it gives them a perspective on history that can only come from primary or secondary sources,” Young continued. “Mr. Devinki’s presentation will give students of Smith-Cotton a firsthand glimpse of history’s darkest moments and how some individuals persevered and survived in the face of overwhelming circumstances. The story of Mr. Devinki’s mother is moving to say the least.”
Maria Devinki grew up in the small town of Wodzisław, Poland. According to Sam Devinki, at the beginning of the war, there were 4,500 people living there. By the end of the war, 600 remained. The rest lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“When my mother was 19 years old she was gathered with the rest of the Jews and was forced to move to the ghetto,” Devinki explained. “At first she was forced to help build the railroad and was made to carry stone.”
When she became too frail to continue to work on the railroad because of a lack of food, the Nazis forced her to become a nurse. There was so much illness in the ghettos, which was something the Nazis feared. One of 12 from the community to serve as a nurse, Maria Devinki was the only nurse to survive.
Her father was sent by the Germans to Treblinka, which was strictly known as a “killing camp.” It was there that 2,000 were killed in a four-hour time frame each day. In total, more than 1 million perished in Treblinka.
After agreeing to marry her husband because he promised he could protect her, Devinki and nine members of her family spent 27 months in hiding, surviving in a 12-foot-deep by 16-foot-long hole in the ground before finally finding freedom in 1945 with the end of the war. It would take five additional years before the family would come to America in 1950.
“When the war began I had three grandparents, nine aunts and uncles and a couple of dozen cousins,” Devinki told the students. “At the war’s end, I had one grandparent, one aunt and one uncle, and two cousins.”
The rest were all killed during the Holocaust simply because of who they were and their Jewish faith.
For Devinki, there is no easy answer when asked how to prevent this from happening again.
“My hope is by talking to people of this age because they have not yet formed the hatred and bigotry and anti-semitism that exists, they will be able to recognize it and do something about it,” Devinki said. “That is what bullying is.
“It is how minor incidents develop into major ones – it begins with little things but it is my hope that this age does not become hardened to it. That they understand where it can lead to,” he continued. “It is hard for 13- to 18-year-olds to stand up to but hopefully when they do they will see others standing up behind them in support.”