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Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Experience with O’Dowd Students

“Mommy, what’s that number on your arm?”

When Gloria Hollander Lyon’s young son first asked her that question, she was not ready to answer him. Years later, Lyon shared the story of her number, A-6374, and her harrowing personal story of surviving the Holocaust in a book entitled “Mommy, What’s that Number on Your Arm?”

Born in 1930 in Czechoslovakia, Lyon was only 14-years-old when she was put into a cattle car and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was branded with her number and guards shaved off her two long auburn braids, leaving her head completely bald. She survived seven camps and was eventually rescued by the Swedish Red Cross.

Today, the 88-year-old mother of two and grandmother of nine lives in San Francisco, and dedicates much of her time to education and remembrance of her experience during the Holocaust.

She visited O’Dowd on May 22, at the invitation of social studies teacher Bonnie Sussman – who teaches a semester long Holocaust and Genocide Studies course – and met with students from several classes in the Theater.

Lyon said she was a prisoner of war “not because I was a fighter but because I was a child who was born to Jewish parents.”

“In some way, to some degree, the Holocaust can happen again any time, any place, and to any people, race or color unless you are constantly on guard to eradicate hatred and prejudice and discrimination against all human beings,” Lyon said. “Do not stand idly by. Be aware of the social, political and economic changes around you, and be vigilant regarding danger signs of eroding civil rights and civil liberties. Exercise your rights – the right to speak out, vote, and participate in a civil society.”

Added Lyon, “Now that you’ve heard the testimony of a witness, you have yourselves become witnesses. I charge you with the responsibility to remember – to pass on the memory of the Holocaust so that its lessons will be remembered by future generations. Each one has to do his or her share by treating others with respect, dignity, kindness and compassion. The human cost of racism is too high and the pain it causes is too deep.”

Students were moved by her story.

“Listening to a Holocaust survivor has always been something I wanted to experience. I am more than honored to have had the experience to hear from Gloria. Reading a book is one thing, but listening to the emotion behind her speaking was another. It was very moving and enabled me to get a better understanding of what the Holocaust was like from the perspective of one individual person,” Gianna Lawrenz ’20 said.

Melvie Koshgarian-Cash ’20 participated in the O’Dowd Holocaust Study Tour in April, traveling through Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, so had a keen understanding of the places Lyon spoke about.

“I personally related to Gloria when she talked about going back to Auschwitz and how there were beautiful flowers growing and the birds were singing. I had the same experience and it blew my mind because I do not understand how beauty could exist in a place where so many horrific actions took place,” she said.

Sussman said that with the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors today, there is a sense of urgency in the survivor community, to speak to as many young people as they can. “As Gloria told the students, the Holocaust must not become just a paragraph in a book or a footnote in history which can be overlooked or forgotten because it can happen again,” she said.

“The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. It began with words and government leaders espousing hatred for certain minority populations, in particular, Jews. The vast majority of citizens during the Holocaust were not perpetrators, but they were bystanders and did nothing to stop it. Less than one percent of the population were rescuers or upstanders and tried to make a difference,” Sussman said.


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