For the vast majority of American high school students, the Holocaust is a significant but distant historical event learned about in the pages of a history textbook. Very few students will ever get the opportunity to learn about the horrors of World War II from a living piece of that history, and as the years go by, there are fewer opportunities to do so. On March 21, sophomores at Centralia High School were gifted the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust from a living survivor, Mr. Peter Metzelaar.
Metzelaar was about seven years old when Nazi Germany invaded his homeland of Holland. He recalls being old enough to remember what he was seeing at the time, but not old enough to have been fully aware of what was happening in the world. He was quick to point out that "not every person of the Jewish faith went to a camp. Many escaped to different countries, and many were hidden, as was I." Metzelaar and his mother were first taken in by a family on a small farm in Holland. They spent over two years with that first family, often being forced to hide under the floorboards during Nazi raids, and later retreating to a small hand-dug "cave" in a forest near the property. He and his mother would later be relocated to The Hague, and then to Amsterdam.
Metzelaar shared the story of how his mother arranged to travel from The Hague to Amsterdam on a highway that was reserved solely for Nazi use. His mother disguised herself as a Red Cross nurse and told an SS officer that she was taking a child to an orphanage in the city after his family was killed by a stray Allied bomb. To this day, Metzelaar tells the story, with slight disbelief, of how the SS officer helped his mother into the cab of his truck and drove them along the highway, never knowing or suspecting they were Jewish.
Metzelaar also told of his family's relocation to the United States and his journey back to Holland many years later. He never knew the name of the small town they first hid in. Several fortunate turns of events led them there, where he met a bank manager who not only remembered the family who first hid the Metzlaars, he knew the exact location of the farm. With the help of his son, Peter was even able to locate the small cave he and the farmer had dug by hand for them to hide in during the ever-increasing Nazi raids and searches.
After sharing photos of his own trip to the Auschwitz camp, Mr. Metzelaar also took the opportunity to share his hard-earned wisdom with students about things that can lead humans to commit horrible atrocities against one another. "The festering of hatred, it gets you nowhere. Absolutely nowhere," he said. He pointed to bullying as a starting point. "Hitler was a bully, that's how it started. It developed into this humongous event called the Holocaust" and he encouraged students to take a stand against bullying, intolerance, and ignorance.
Students also watched a screening of Schindler's List, a movie that highlights some of the atrocities committed in World War II, but also puts a spotlight on Oskar Schindler, a man who helped save around 1,200 people by classifying them as workers essential to his operations.