By Leah Schmalz
When Irving Bienstock saw the Nazi military starting fires in synagogues, smashing windows, and raiding the houses of Jews on the night that is now known as Kristallnacht, his hope of survival wavered. “At that moment I thought I was going to die,” he said, as he recounted his story to eighth grade students at Mint Hill Middle School last Monday.
Bienstock covered his experience in Germany during the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, when Jews weren’t permitted to ride buses, visit parks, or continue to run their businesses. Most of his extended family was killed and his father was forced to flee. Finally the rest of the family was able to escape the country. His father eventually made it to the United States in 1939 and the rest of the family joined him the following year. Bienstock entered the military and returned to Europe five years later to fight in World War II.
Several students were selected to ask Bienstock questions after he spoke. One student asked if Bienstock thought an event like the Holocaust could happen again. “Yes it could happen again, and it’s happened in other parts of the world,” he said.
When asked what advice he would give to the current generation, Bienstock urged the students to be proactive. “Don’t be indifferent to things that are happening around you,” he said. “Don’t just be a bystander. Speak up. Don’t allow it to happen because it you do it will grow.”
Initially Bienstock chose not to speak about his experience. “As I got older I realized I had a responsibility to speak about it. People needed to know what happened to us,” he said. Now he volunteers at the Levine Jewish Community Center, helping with The Butterfly Project. The project commemorates the 1.5 million children who lost their lives during the Holocaust by having local students paint ceramic butterflies. Each one is marked with a name to honor the child’s memory. There were 5,000 butterflies completed in this year’s season.
At the end of the presentation, the students presented Bienstock with thank you cards and a Mint Hill backpack. Bienstock offered his own thanks to the students. “I would like to thank you for learning about this, because we can learn what can happen when people are indifferent.”