Edith Palkowitz was 12 when her entire family was taken away from her. For a year and a half she lived by herself in a Budapest ghetto, where Jews were forced by the Nazis to live in unspeakable conditions during the Holocaust.
"I was completely alone," Palkowitz said on April 12 at the San Diego Jewish Academy's Holocaust Remembrance Day. "My whole family was killed in the ghetto, only one aunt survived. Being in the ghetto was more personal. If the guards didn't like you, they shot you."
She was freed from the ghetto by the British army, but she said she could not stay in Hungary for very long, the memories were too difficult. She left at age 17 for America and she said the day she saw the Statue of Liberty as her ship neared Ellis Island was the happiest day of her life.
"A story is just a story," said Palkowitz, noting that no one can ever fully understand what she and others went through during the Holocaust. She looks at her five grandchildren today and says with great conviction: "They couldn't do what I did."
What everybody can do, though, is listen to the stories, learn and remember.
Every year SDJA's fifth graders present a Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony honoring the survivors and paying tribute to the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. Of those 6 million, one and a half million were children "taken from their mothers and fathers and murdered in cold blood."
The students read poems and sang songs to an audience that included 50 Holocaust survivors, many of them their grandparents. Haunting photos and stories appeared on the screen behind them, images of victims such as Eva Heyman, who was killed at age 13, and Hanna Hershowitz, who was only 9.
"Forget not one thing," the students read. "Lest from this we learn nothing."
Gussie Zaks, president of the New Life Club for Holocaust Survivors in San Diego, brings her club every year and is thankful that SDJA presents a ceremony. She especially appreciates the children's involvement.
"We cannot say it is beautiful because it's the Holocaust, but it is an excellent program," said Zaks, whose parents and six siblings were killed by the Nazis. "It's so important for us survivors."
Shani Abed, the school's fifth grade teacher and Hebrew and Judaic curriculum coordinator, opened the ceremony by dedicating it to her grandparents, Yaacov and Tova Putrermilch, two Holocaust survivors who have since passed away.
"They were Holocaust survivors who never gave up on hope or belief," Abed said. "My grandparents were a big inspiration to me. Those two individuals taught me that life is something you can't take for granted."
Abed said it is a big honor for her to educate children about the Holocaust, to remember the victims and examine how the tragic event relates to their lives and community today.
"Our common responsibility is to remember, to draw the hard lessons from this tragedy, and to take action to prevent these horrors from ever happening again," Abed said.
After the ceremony, students ate lunch with the survivors.
Survivor David Blusztein remembers living in a Poland ghetto, the hunger, the long days of work in the camp and his eventual escape from the camp with his father, brother and two sisters.
He said the Holocaust Remembrance Day is as much about the "bad time before" as it is about celebrating the "good time now."
"I am happy. I make a big family," he said.
Blusztein smiled as he recounted his big family: two children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.