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Pittsburgh woman tells South Allegheny students how family survived Holocaust

| Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, 5:31 a.m.
Irene Skolnick, 78, talks with students at South Allegheny High School on Thursday about how her family survived the Holocaust. Her visit was made possible through the JFilm Teen Screen program.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
Irene Skolnick, 78, talks with students at South Allegheny High School on Thursday about how her family survived the Holocaust. Her visit was made possible through the JFilm Teen Screen program.

Irene Skolnick has many stories about how she and members of her family survived the Holocaust as Jews living in Poland.

She related some of those accounts to students at South Allegheny High School on Thursday during a visit sponsored by the Jewish film organization JFilm and its Teen Screen program.

“There was this constant tension and uncertainty,” is how Skolnick described the years between 1941 and 1944 when her family eluded German authorities and survived by relocating to Lublin, Poland, and passing themselves off as Catholics.

Though Skolnick, 78, was only in her formative years at the time, she said she, like others in her family, learned survival tactics that included knowing when to talk and when to be quiet.

For her father, Skolnick said it meant thinking fast and claiming a fake hometown on the border of Poland and Germany when a co-worker asked him about his knowledge of the two languages.

Her mother once talked her way out of a brush with a suspicious police officer who took her for a Jew and was about to arrest her.

Skolnick said for her, survival meant knowing it was time to “clam up” when a friend's parent questioned her one day about her own family's history.

Skolnick and her brother were at times separated from their parents as they moved from town to town in search of safety. There were failed attempts to put the children into the care of good Samaritans, brushes with the Gestapo and cramped living conditions the family had to endure before the country was liberated in 1944.

She also told the story of her aunt who ignored a mandate requiring Jews to wear identifying armbands and was killed.

The experiences Skolnick described held students' attention for more than an hour.

Skolnick, who now lives in Pittsburgh, told students that for years she spoke little of the Holocaust. She said it was delving into her father's memoirs about four years ago and the publication of her own memoir, “In the Shadow of Majdanek,” two years ago that got her speaking on the subject publicly.

It is important for survivors to tell their stories in an era of Holocaust deniers, Skolnick said, adding there was no denying, then or now, what happened in the concentration camps.

“Not only could we see the smoke, we could smell the burning bodies and hear the screams at night,” she said.

The visit came about through the school's language department.

French teacher Carly Toth-Beech said her classes have seen French language films about the Jewish experience through the JFilm's Teen Screen program in the past and are scheduled to see another one next week.

Teen Screen director Lori Sisson said the program periodically makes speakers like Skolnick available to participating schools.

Toth-Beech said lectures like the one at the school Thursday enrich the language curriculum, which typically does not have much of a historical component.

High school history teacher John McCay said his students also benefited from the lecture. McCay said he can usually touch on the subject of the Holocaust for only a day or two in class, though he said students in a film history course at the school get more exposure to the subject.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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