History came to life this week for eighth-grade students at Sewickley Academy.
Holocaust survivor and Polish native Moshe Baran talked with the students Tuesday about his experiences during World War II in the Horodok ghetto, in the Krasny forced labor camp, and in the forest of Byelorussia, now Belarus, in Eastern Europe.
The 92-year-old Squirrel Hill resident shared stories with the students that they had only read about during their recent studies on the Holocaust.
It was the 11th year that Mr. Baran has visited the school. Mr. Baran is close friends with Jeff Lenchner, a Sewickley Academy alumnus, trustee emeritus 2010 and parent. Mr. Lenchner introduced Mr. Baran to the students. Until his wife, Malka, also a Holocaust survivor, died in 2007, Mr. Baran had been accompanied by her on visits to the school.
On Tuesday, Mr. Baran compared this week's bombings at the Boston Marathon to his life.
"Imagine the world we live in. Who would put a bomb in a place to kill innocent civilians?" he said. "Sometimes people are guided through hate."
Mr. Baran drew laughter from the students when he told them he was going to take them on a "five-minute ride through 4,000 years of history."
"Hold onto your chairs because it is going to be a rough ride," he joked.
As he talked with the students, he interspersed his history lesson with life lessons. He told the students that Hitler had told the people of his country that he would solve all of their problems.
"Never trust anyone who is going to say they are going to solve all of your problems because life is problematic," he said.
Mr. Baran stood during his hourlong presentation, interacting with students, asking them questions and joking. But he didn't spare them the details about his difficult past.
He explained how, early in the war, teachers instructed young schoolchildren to tell them if their parents talked against the government.
"Can you imagine turning in your own parents? This was the kind of system that we had. But compared to what kind of system it was going to turn into, this was paradise," he said.
Mr. Baran was from the village of Horodok, Poland, where 300 Jewish families lived. When the Nazis invaded Byelorussia, he was forced to go to the labor camp, where he worked 12-hour days. For a time, his family hid in an underground bunker on his uncle's property, Mr. Baran said. His family later was sent to the camp. His father and sister perished; a brother, a sister and his mother survived.
"My mother was the only mother who survived from our hometown," he said.
Mr. Baran also told the students about resistance groups that lived in the forests.
"To join, you had to have a weapon, so I needed to get one," he told them. With the help of a German guard he referred to as a "mensch," Mr. Baran put a gun together with salvaged parts and joined the resistance movement. As a fighter, he fought the German troops from the forests of Eastern Europe.
"You are looking at a guy who had had six hard lives," he explained.
Mr. Baran said his late wife made it her mission to try to eliminate hate.
"Don't be passive. If you see something that is wrong, fix it. My late wife had a campaign against hate -- eliminate hate from your vocabulary," he instructed the students.
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Baran explained why he shares his life stories.
"The fact that young people listen is a reward for the pain of reliving these stories," he said.
As a surprise to Mr. Baran, the students and staff led him to the front of the school, where they dedicated a newly planted dogwood tree in honor of him and his wife.
Matthew Teiteleaum, 15, a ninth-grader at the school, read a poem he had written for Mr. Baran after meeting him before, "What is a hero?"
"I felt his story really spoke to me. When you think of a hero, it is someone like Mr. Baran who often goes unrecognized," he said.
Katie Malus, 13, of Sewickley, said, "We learn in the classroom, but he really brought it to life. He made it a reality."
Luke Ross, 14, also of Sewickley agreed. "It was so inspiring that at this age he told the story with such detail and in poetic detail, he really moved me," he said.
Mr. Baran soon will travel to Washington, D.C., where he will share his experiences with other groups.
"I must speak," he said. "I must justify my being. It is my duty and obligation. If I have the honor and privilege of living this long, I must speak."neigh_north
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: email@example.com.