“Hatred has a long reach” was the message of Holocaust survivor Edith Schumer and her daughter, Fern Schumer-Chapman, at an event at Peotone High School Wednesday afternoon.
“Stop the hatred,” Schumer said. “It might be your family that falls victim.”
Schumer-Chapman, a Chicago-based writer and journalist, has spent 20 years writing nonfiction and fiction books about her mother’s Holocaust survival story, traveling and speaking with her mother in schools across the country to give a face to the atrocities of racism and discrimination. Oprah Winfrey has featured her books twice.
“My mom is the rock star of the middle-school circuit,” Schumer-Chapman said, “because she was 12. They see her and get a sense of who was marginalized and persecuted. They have to ask themselves, why do we bully? Why do we ostracize students who are different?”
Ninety percent of the Jewish children living in Nazi-controlled countries were murdered during World War II, Schumer-Chapman said.
Schumer grew up in one of only two Jewish families living a small town in the German Rhine Valley. Her family had lived there for 200 years and considered themselves German first, Jewish second. Her father received honors from Germany for service during World War I.
But when the Nazis took over the government, suddenly kids wouldn’t play with her or RSVP to her birthday party. She felt invisible, Schumer-Chapman explained.
“It’s important to remember that the Nazis came to power legally,” Schumer-Chapman said. “Nazism is institutionalized bullying.”
Schumer’s parents were a well-off family before the war and were able to bribe officials to get Schumer and her sister into the One Thousand Children program, which sent some Jewish children in Nazi-controlled countries to America. Schumer was sent by herself — with just a small suitcase she could carry and a doll — by ship and then train to Chicago to live with a relative she had never met. Her parents and grandparents both died in concentration camps.
All this happened, Schumer-Chapman said, because their neighbors and countrymen “knew what was happening and looked the other way. ... There are many in Germany who are haunted by this past.”
Only 1,400 children were saved through the program, a number Schumer-Chapman said “speaks volumes to how we were as a country at that time.” It’s a story that has eerie similarities to the political climate today around the world.
“How we remember determines who we are,” Schumer-Chapman said. “It’s a powerful message because it’s clearly a problem today.”
She said she has seen a growing interest in remembering the Holocaust in recent years, and many schools are holding anti-racism rallies that the pair get invited to. “When I started this, there was an attitude that this is ancient history,” Schumer-Chapman said. “Today, there is a renaissance.”
It was a thought on some of the students’ minds in the audience. “[The talk] was really good, especially for people my age, because all the actual survivors are passing and it’s becoming harder itself to get an authentic experience, so that history doesn’t repeat itself,” said junior Alexis Army.
That’s exactly why the mother-and-daughter team does it. Said Schumer: “What disturbs me is it could happen again.”