Eight-year-old Johnny Halhoul is a very inquisitive third-grader.That is why it came as no surprise to his mother, Dr. Elisa Santos, that her son had a lot of questions while they were reading “Children of Terror” together at night. The 99-page book was written by two women who survived the Holocaust as children and shows that the Holocaust was even worse than what people believe, affecting millions in addition to the Jewish population.
Wanting to know more, Johnny, a student at Southampton Elementary School, reached out to one of the authors, Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride, who also lives in Southampton. He wanted to learn more about the horrors she lived through as a Polish Catholic woman sent to a German labor camp with her family in 1943.
“He is the kind of child who doesn’t stop asking questions until he is satisfied with the answer you give him,” Dr. Santos said.
Last week, Johnny and his mom sat down with Ms. Gilbride at Sip ‘N’ Soda in Southampton Village, so the boy could learn as much as possible about the experience from someone who lived through it firsthand. Johnny, who serves on the student council at his school, said the experience was very helpful for him, and that he learned a lot not only about the Holocaust—during which the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, murdered an estimated 11 million people in an effort to create a master race and wipe out “undesirables”—but about the power of hate and how bullying can affect a person’s life.
“It was a very interesting talk,” Johnny said the next day. “I learned that hate is a very powerful thing.”
Ms. Gilbride was born in Leonowka, Poland, in 1934 to Wiktor and Janina Urbanowicz. She had three younger siblings, a brother, Czeslaw, and her sisters, Irena and Krystyna. According to Ms. Gilbride, her small village, located just outside of Warsaw, was one of several that were destroyed during the war by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army for the Nazi Party, seeking to eliminate as many Polish people as possible. Although her Catholic family survived the burning of her village, they were transported to Freiberg, Germany, and eventually to a labor camp in Chemnitz, a village in eastern Germany.
Halfway through their stay there, her mother was arrested for writing a letter condemning the conditions at the camp. She was transferred to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, and the family did not hear from her for several years.
The family was liberated from the labor camp in 1945, and in 1947 Ms. Gilibride immigrated to the United States with her father and three siblings. Once there, they learned that her mother had survived her stay in the concentration camp, but was not able to come to the United States until 1957.
Over the past 22 years, Ms. Gilbride has been speaking at schools across the country, hoping to spread the message that it was not just the Jewish people who suffered during the Holocaust, and that no one person’s pain is worse than another’s. Still troubled by the nightmares she has remembering her time in Germany, Ms. Gilbride said it is clear to her that children today will benefit more from hearing stories like hers than they will from reading a textbook.
“I decided that I am going to say something to make all of our children look at the idea of hate and what it did to all of us, not just one group,” Ms. Gilbride said. “Because it wasn’t just one group. The Holocaust recognizes 11 million victims. Six million were Jewish—and they suffered the most, there is no questioning that—but what about the rest of us? That is why I made the decision to do something about it.”
Last week, Ms. Gilbride, who has lived in Southampton for 18 years, said she was very impressed after meeting Johnny, noting that she has spoken at countless schools about her family’s ordeal, and rarely gets specific questions like the ones he posed.
During their 20-minute talk, Johnny first asked Ms. Gilbride about a chapter in her book where she described having to take a shower with her family, and how her parents were terrified during the ordeal. Ms. Gilbride explained to Johnny that, although she did not know it at the time, her parents had heard rumors about prisoners being told they were going for a shower and being killed with gas instead. She explained to him how fear was one of the worst parts of the camp.
Ms. Gilbride and Johnny also spent much of their time talking about life before the camp, when Poland was first occupied. She told him how as a Polish girl, she was tormented by the German girls her age, and how she was never treated well.
Now, Johnny wants to further educate his fellow students at Southampton. Although Ms. Gilbride’s book may be too intense for other 8 year olds, he is hoping to approach the district, through the student council, about having Ms. Gilbride visit the school to speak to the students. Although she has spoken at Southampton before, Ms. Gilbride said it has been several years, and it is probably time for a return trip.
Ms. Gilbride will also be speaking at 4 p.m. next Monday at the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch in Riverhead and will be flying to Florida for a two-week speaking tour shortly after.
“I am thankful to God that I still have my brains and that I am in good enough health that I can still reach these children,” she said. “I really want to talk to as many students as possible, because if I reach only two or three in a group of 500, I can go home a very happy woman.”