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Speaker Shares Family’s Holocaust Experiences

Jacque Sarphatie Discenza recently visited Mendon High School to discuss the Holocaust and its lingering effects on subsequent generations. She introduced herself as a “DP kid” and explained how she was born at the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany. After liberation, more than 2,000 children were born in the DP camp when many Holocaust survivors could not return to their homelands after World War II. Her most vivid memories from that time were of being hungry and cold.

While her parents survived the Holocaust, approximately six million Jewish men, women and children died during the Holocaust, plus an estimated five million people from other targeted groups such as individuals with disabilities; Romani, Polish, Serbian, and Soviet civilians; prisoners of war; and others.

English teacher Emily Wijnaendts Van Resandt worked closely with the Jewish Federation of Rochester to coordinate the speaker for tenth grade English classes, who have been studying the novel Night by Elie Wiesel, which chronicles Wiesel's teenage experiences during the Holocaust as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps.

Sarphatie Discenza’s father grew up a Sephardic Jew in Italy. When Mussolini enacted antisemitic legislation in 1938, her paternal grandfather lost his job as a professor, and increased discrimination against Jewish Italians spread. In 1943, German forces occupied Italy, and her paternal grandparents, her father, and his seven siblings were sent to Auschwitz. Her father was the only family member to survive.

Sarphatie Discenza’s mother, from Amsterdam, was 11 when she was rounded up as part of the mass deportation. Her grandparents were executed in front of her for walking too slow. She was one of a set of triplets, and upon her arrival in Auschwitz she was subjected to Josef Mengele's infamous experiments along with her sisters, both of whom died as a result of the cruel procedures and torture. She later became pregnant by a German solider, gave birth, and was ostracized for refusing to give up her baby boy.

Sarphatie Discenza’s parents met and married at Bergen-Belsen DP camp. While the survivors were liberated, many could not or would not return to their homelands, and options for legal immigration were limited. The camp was overpopulated with shortages of food and clothing. There was no personal freedom, as they were still heavily guarded. Sarphatie Discenza described an air of desperation and hopelessness. In 1955, her family received sponsorship and relocated to the United States. She turned eight while traveling, and spent the first four months in America in the Ellis Island hospital recovering from malnourishment.

As the family became acclimated, they discovered that there were people who couldn’t comprehend, and even denied, what happened to them, so her parents eventually stopped sharing their experiences. They felt isolated, suffered survivor's guilt, and lived in fear that it could happen again. Her father dug trenches in their dirt cellar in Brooklyn where she and her siblings would hide when someone they didn’t know came to their door. Her mother suffered long-term mental health issues.

In speaking to the students, Sarphatie Discenza emphasized that it is important to share survivors' stories and encouraged them to research and learn about the names and faces of the people who lived and died. “It happened, and it happened to more people than you think it did,” she exclaimed. “Go share their story.”

Later this month, she will also speak at Sutherland High School.

Image description: Woman with white hair at the front of a classroom points to a PowerPoint presentation on a screen.   Image description: Woman with white hair stands in front of a full classroom of high school students.