It didn’t take long for the students to gasp.
Middle and high school students at the Georgia Academy for the Blind leaned onto the edge of their seats listening to a speaker relive one of the worst tragedies in history — and something they knew only from their social studies lessons.
They were face to face with a survivor of the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of more than 6 million Jews by the Nazis before and during World War II.
Herbert Kohn, born in 1926 in Frankfurt, Germany, was there to tell students not to be bystanders but to stand up against crimes against humanity, from those inside schools such as Columbine, Colo., to those as far away as Darfur, Sudan.
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“Some of these crimes can be prevented,” he said.
Kohn, 83, said his first memory of the Holocaust was at age 6.
There were changes all around him. He told the students he remembers his best friend yelling to him, “What are you looking at, you dirty Jew?”
Just the day before, he had been turned away from school. Jews were no longer allowed to attend public schools.
That was six weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power, he said.
Kohn is one of about 24 Holocaust survivors who volunteer with The William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum in Atlanta. He travels to universities, schools and organizations across the state to tell his story and spread his message against hate and persecution.
“Park benches said ‘no Jews can sit here,’ ” he told the students. “Store windows said ‘Jews are not wanted here.’ Jews became a nothing. You could be murdered, done away with by bullets, gas, any way possible.”
In 1935, his father, Leo, who had fought on the front lines for Germany in World War I, made plans for the family to leave Germany, but emigration laws delayed the plans. Life got worse.
In 1938, Jewish houses of worship was destroyed. Windows in Jewish-owned stores were broken and goods were stolen. The Nazis gathered up Jewish males between the ages of 16 and 60 and took them to concentration camps, he said. “I was there and saw the glass on the street,” he said. “I was there when the (Nazi) storm troopers came to the door.”
They took his father.
“His story was a terrible story of abuse,” Kohn said. “He was taken that night to a sports arena — like Phillips Arena in Atlanta. (They) stayed two days without food, water or bathroom privileges.
“Then they were put on trains to fight amongst themselves to get to the window to lick the condensation off the windows during the three-hour train ride” to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
A third of that group died the first night, either at Nazi hands or after jumping from the train, he said.
His father was saved after storm troopers found a paper in his pocket, he said. It was a July 1938 letter from Hitler’s predecessor, thanking Leo Kohn for his military service fighting for the Germans in World War I.
Because of that, the Nazis sent his father home after three weeks in the camp — 30 pounds lighter and with a head full of gray hair. That letter is on display in the Atlanta museum, as well as other photos of Kohn.
A man from the English consulate helped Kohn’s mother get the family’s visas stamped in order to leave Germany.
“The reason I’m telling you this story in such detail, ... it saved my life,” Kohn said. “(That man) was not a bystander. He took his Christian religion to save lives.”
The family came to America in 1940, where they stayed with a relative in Birmingham, Ala., and started a new life in farming.
Kohn went on to get his degree in agriculture from Auburn University. He became an accountant and now develops housing in Atlanta.
Other members of his family were not so lucky. He said his grandfather died in a Nazi cattle car on the way to Minsk.
Millions more also were killed, he said, including the disabled, women who could not bear children and Gypsies.
Kayla Weathers, a senior at the academy, said she respects Kohn for speaking out against discrimination and persecution. She said his insights gave her a better perspective of the Holocaust.
Schools call each day asking for Holocaust survivors such as Kohn to speak to students, said Mike Weinroth, who’s with the museum.
“A couple of kids leaned over to their teachers and said, ‘we would not be here under Hitler,’ ” he said.
To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.