By TAYLOR HARTZ
When the topic of social issues in World War II was brought up in Sue DeSimone’s language arts class at John F. Kennedy Middle School, seventh grade student Megan Fortier was reminded of the story of her great aunt, Janina Nawarskas—a story Nawarskas had just begun sharing herself.
Having rarely spoken of her experiences in Lithuania and Germany during World War II, Nawarskas published her first memoir, “A Child Lost,” in 2013, and has since been sharing her love of America and her gratitude for life, said Fortier.
After sharing the story with her classmates, Fortier brought a copy of her great aunt’s memoir to DeSimone, who said she “felt compelled to share the story,” with the seventh grade class. She hoped the experience would help students develop context for their end of year unit, focused on understanding terms like tolerance, ignorance, and acceptance.
On Friday, June 5, JFK seventh graders filed into the auditorium to hear Nawarskas give her first-hand account of life in war torn Europe.
Before she began, Principal Steven Madancy asked students to imagine what it would have been like, at their age, to live through a similar situation. In doing so, he set the stage for what Nawarskas shared, a story not of defeat or sorrow, but of gratitude and pride.
With a brightly colored American flag scarf around her neck, she told the students how she survived the Holocaust, but most importantly of how she became a proud American citizen.
The 79-year-old, who immigrated to Waterbury at the age of 11, recounted how she survived the war. Born in Lithuania, her journey began in 1944 when her family left their comfortable life to escape communist occupation. When she fled to the German border with her parents at the age of eight, her father was taken as a prisoner, and she and her mother were sent to a camp, where her mother soon passed away.
Nawarskas survived as an orphan in camps and on the streets of Germany until her father rode across Germany on a bicycle to reunite with her. The two spent years preparing for their immigration to America. They were first sponsored by a Minnesotan family that tried to force the couple’s separation, but the two reunited with her older brothers upon their immigration to Connecticut.
While recalling her journey, Nawarskas shared several anecdotes of her first experiences with American culture. She spoke of the generosity of American soldiers who fed her when she lived on the streets of Germany, and kind Minnesotans who donated gifts to her during her first Christmas season in the U.S.
She continuously reminded the students of all they had to be grateful for, compared to what she had at their age.
“It is important, at this time in their lives to pass on that they don’t need to so many material items to get by,” said Nawarskas.
She encouraged students to appreciate the many liberties of living in what she repeatedly called “the land of opportunity.” She discussed their education and career prospects, and she encouraged them to appreciate their freedom as children in America. “Respect it. Honor it. Exercise it,” she said.
As she finished her story, more than 20 students rushed from their seats to the microphones placed at the rear of the auditorium, and Madancy agreed to extend the assembly into the next period, to allow students a chance to ask their questions.
To prepare for the event, social studies teachers worked closely with language arts teachers, showing videos to help students develop their knowledge of the Holocaust. Social studies teachers Amy Fontain and Bill Leiner taught lessons on World War II and helped students develop appropriate questions—some that brought tears to Nawarskas’ eyes.
The seventh grade students stood for nearly 40 minutes, asking questions that might help them understand her experience. “What were your biggest fears or doubts?” “What were you thinking on your way to the camp?” “What was it like when you reunited with your father?”
As the students tried to comprehend what she lived through, Nawarskas continually brought her responses back to show gratitude and pride for her new homeland.
When questions concluded, Madancy told students that he hoped the assembly might cause them to reflect on their needs versus their wants, and to look at things from a new perspective.
As the hallway filled with students and staff anxious to purchase a copy of her memoir, students discussed the ways in which Nawarskas encouraged and inspired them.
Seventh grader Trevor Messina said, “She taught me some important lessons, like enjoying what I have and appreciating it a lot.”
Anna Haberski agreed, “She taught me not to take things for granted.”
Both students said the event helped them put textbook lessons into a real life perspective as they drew on knowledge from historical nonfiction readings, lessons on world affairs and trips to the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum.
Although their curriculum has not yet covered the full history of World War II, seventh grade students are taught a unit focused on social and world issues. Language arts teacher Victoria Craigie explained that this unit is aimed toward helping students learn about current international affairs while understanding historically factual issues.
She hoped that hearing Nawarskas’ account would offer an opportunity for students to not only connect the speech to their world issues unit, “but build a better understanding that they are a part of a living history” said Craigie.
When it came their turn to purchase a copy of the book, students asked for extra copies to be inscribed to their parents and grandparents, and offered comments such as “Thank you so very much” and “God bless you,” to Nawarskas as they accepted their copies of her story.
This is the first time the seventh grade students had been spoken to by a Holocaust survivor, an event usually preserved for the eighth grade students. While Craigie warned her students that it might be hard to understand the context of Nawrskas’ story, she felt it was important for them to experience a first-hand account and appreciate it as “something that might not be around in ten years.”
Fortier said she was so happy to share the stage with her great aunt as she shared her family’s story with her classmates, offering them an introduction to the history of the Holocaust from a first-hand perspective.