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Rickie Taras was born in Belgium in 1938 and survived the Holocaust, despite the vast majority of her family being killed. She visited Sacred Heart School, Palm Desert, on Feb. 17 to share her story with the school’s seventh and eighth graders.

By Anneliese Esparza
Managing Editor

Seventh and eighth grade students from Sacred Heart School, Palm Desert, got the chance to hear a talk from Holocaust survivor Rickie Taras on Feb. 17. Taras, who now lives in the Coachella Valley, was born in Belgium just before the start of World War II and was one of just three members of her family to survive the Holocaust.

She began her talk by giving some historical context on the World War II time period – Germany’s resentment at losing World War I, Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and desire to conquer Europe, and the Nazi ideology of creating a “master-race” that led to the horrific extermination of nearly two-thirds of the European Jewish population and anyone else deemed to be “undesirables.”

The students listened attentively and solemnly as Taras described what went on, starting with the Nazis steadily stripping away Jews’ rights and freedoms and forcing them to be identified with a Star of David badge to mark them as an outsider, and ultimately leading to the horrors that went on in concentration camps – starvation, hard labor, diseases, torture and murder.

“It was inhumane. There’s no words for it. I hope God will help us so that we’ll never have something like that happen to anybody in the whole world. No human being should suffer like that; nobody should suffer like that, not even kittens or dogs,” Taras told the students.

Taras then went into her own story of living during the Holocaust. She was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938, an only child to her parents. One day when she was about three years old, her father, who made fur coats for a living, went to nearby Brussels by train to sell his coats, and took his daughter with him. Little did they know that that was the moment that their family would be split up forever; while Taras and her father were gone, her mother found out that the Nazis were planning to arrest all Jews on the train that her husband and daughter were to return on. In her attempts to warn them, she herself was rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz. They never saw her again, and she was executed shortly after.

Taras and her father were able to return to Antwerp safely after all – she doesn’t recall if it was because the Nazis didn’t search that train after all or if they might have missed their train – but either way they returned to Antwerp, only to find out that Taras’ mother had been taken. Her father now had to take care of his young daughter alone, amid German occupation and an increasingly dire situation for Jews.

“As a young kid, a toddler, I understood what was going on. You feel the danger, you feel in the air that it’s not safe,” said Taras.

The persecution escalated until one night, at 1:30 a.m., Nazi soldiers closed in on the majority Jewish quarter of the city and rounded up Jews by force to take them to the concentration camps. Taras recalls the chaos and terror of that night – dogs barking, people screaming, soldiers shouting, and people being shoved into trucks, men in one and women in another.

Her father knew where the trucks were going, and that the chances of survival for him and his daughter if they were taken to a concentration camp were close to zero. “So he decided, let’s die today. He walked out of the house with me, he expected to get shot, he walked alongside the building, he made a right turn, he went to a friend’s house – nobody saw us. Higher power? I do believe that,” said Taras.

They were able to stay with that friend for a few days until things quieted down and then they escaped to Brussels, hoping they would be able to hide more easily in the larger city. Taras’ father got a work permit and arranged to have Taras taken in by various individuals, first a farmer and his family, then a nurse, then an elderly Catholic couple, which she spent the rest of the war with. Taras could only see her father occasionally when he was able to get away from work.

Another tense moment happened when she was staying with the elderly Catholic couple. A German officer and two soldiers came knocking on the door to randomly search the house. While it was illegal for citizens to have guns or radios, the couple owned a gun, which was hidden behind a bookcase. The soldiers searched the house and just as one of them was about to find the gun, the officer called them off. Taras believes that this was another moment where God stepped into protect her. “I think that was again divine intervention ... had he found the gun, we would have been shot on the spot. I’m supposed to be here today, that’s why. I can’t figure anything else out,” she said.

When the war ended in 1945, Taras discovered that she, her father and her uncle were the only ones that had survived the Holocaust out of her once-large extended family. Eventually she and her father immigrated to Montréal, Canada, and then she married and moved to California with her husband.

Reflecting on her experience, Taras is grateful to God that she survived, but emphasized the importance of not forgetting the atrocities that happened.

“Thank God I’m still here. There are very few survivors left in the world ... I feel so privileged to be able to tell you my story because in a few years, people are going to say, and now already are saying, ‘It didn’t happen.’ Well, I saw it with my own eyes,” she said.

To illustrate how everyone is an important part of our world despite differences in religion, race or color, Taras asked the students what it would be like if all the flowers in the world were white, to which a student responded that it would be boring. “That’s the answer I always get. That’s why the world is not all white,” she said. “We have different people, different religions, but we’re all people, we’re human beings.”

“If we cut our finger, we bleed the same,” she said.

Sacred Heart seventh and eighth grade religion teacher Karen Tatum said she has been doing a unit on the Holocaust for years. She lived in Europe for five years and said the experience of being able to witness more up close the effects of the Holocaust, even decades later, helped impress on her mind the importance of teaching the students this history.

“It just kept coming back and coming back to me ... when you’re in Europe, [the Holocaust] is so much more with you than it is here in the States, from the cemeteries to the families ... I just think it’s not taught, and I don’t know why it’s not taught,” she said. “I just think people aren’t aware.”

“Especially today, look at all the anti-Semitism that’s rearing its ugly head again ... hopefully when you teach kids this young about what happens, they’ll go, ‘Why is someone picking on Jews? What, again? You want them to think that, you want them to think, ‘That’s not OK,’ ” she said.

Students seemed to be impacted by Taras’ talk, including eighth grader Levi Stone, who called it “amazing” and “super eye-opening.” Stone, who is Jewish, recently took third place in a middle school poetry contest sponsored by the Jewish Federation.

“It’s very important to remember and tell everybody, because it shouldn’t happen again,” said eighth grader Hannah Woods.