90-year-old Werner Reich is a retired industrial engineer that hails from Long Island, New York. He is also a Holocaust survivor who endured and survived Nazi torture during World War II. He uses his harrowing tale to speak to high school students throughout the United States in an effort to prevent bullying and make the word a kinder place to reside. I was honored to sit in on one of these presentations this past Tuesday morning.
In a world where teenagers biggest problems revolve around WiFi access and fashion labels, Reich uses his crushing experience to encourage youth to become “J.U.S.T.” people. He coined the term "J.U.S.T." which is an acronym for “Judge Situation, Understand Problem, Solve and Take Action.” He encourages students to help when injustice, intolerance, and bullying are taking place. Reich volunteers his time to give about 100 talks a year.
In 1933, Reich’s father was fired due to a Nazi directive for companies to terminate Jewish people’s employment. The growing unrest led his family to flee Berlin in favor of Yugoslavia, where they enjoyed peace until Adolf Hitler invaded in 1941. Reich hid with two families until he was discovered, arrested, and beaten in 1943. The jail conditions were miserably inhumane. He slept on a concrete floor in filth next to a bucket of human waste, full of flea bites until transferred to the Terezin concentration camp.
"Terezin was a demonstration camp to the Red Cross," Reich said. "So we weren't mistreated much there."
Out of 141,000 people, only 17,000 survived this camp. 30,000 died from starvation and the others by savage violence. The guards would have competitions to see who could cut the most throats– one guard won by cutting 1,630 throats in one day.
Reich endured the atrocities of four concentration camps between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. Reich was one of the “Birkenau Boys,” 89 children singled out by the infamous evil doctor, Josef Mengele, to be kept alive to engage in slave labor. The selection process in these concentration camps was arbitrary and senseless. 6,000 boys raced naked in the yard before Mengele, and other Nazi officers told them a joke. If you laughed, you were murdered. Only 89 out of the 6,000 children survived.
In January 1945, Reich was sent on a “death march” through snow and ice–people who stopped or were unable to continue to the elements or exhaustion were shot. Some stripped off their clothes because they were too heavy to carry and the morsel of bread they were given froze in their pockets and could not be eaten. After three days everyone was loaded into open railroad cars and traveled to Mauthausen, which Reich said was the worst camp. Reich was liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. He was 17 years old, near death weighing 64 pounds.
The presentation was poignant and moved some students to tears. Reich encouraged those in attendance to be mindful of important lessons he learned throughout his unimaginable experience:
"Don't be indifferent. Indifference kills. Don't be a good person who does nothing. Help each other. Be sincere. We all need each other, and we have to stick together. Be nice to each other so you can live in a nice world and have a beautiful life."