Holocaust survivor to Albert Lea students: ‘Be compassionate’

Published 8:57 pm Tuesday, December 4, 2018

According to Holocaust survivor Manny Gabler, who came Tuesday to speak to Albert Lea High School 10th- through 12th-graders, there are several things they can do to make a difference in helping solve global issues.

“Sitting here today is one of them,” he said.

Gabler, who lives in Minneapolis, shared his experience during World War II and answered student and teacher questions about his life during and after the Holocaust.

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“Think about how his story can inform your decisions and experiences in the future as you go out and be leaders and decision-makers and voters and thinking about what you’re going to do for your communities in the future,” said Albert Lea High School English teacher Todd Lange.

Gabler was born in Milan, Italy, after his parents left Germany. His father was an amateur athlete and, because he was well-known, got away with smuggling other Jews into Switzerland before his family left themselves, Gabler said.

The family moved to Shanghai, China, where Gabler said undocumented refugees could stay because a portion of the city was under British control. Other countries had shut their doors. He called the area “the Switzerland of the Orient at the time.”

By 1941, over 18,000 Jewish refugees were settled into buildings filled with bunk beds.

“I didn’t have a bath until I was 7 years old,” Gabler said. “It was a pretty rough time, and there was very little food.”

That 18,000 swelled to 30,000 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and as Chinese citizens were also pushed into the unwalled ghetto in Shanghai. The years 1942, 1943 and 1944 were particularly difficult, Galer said.

“As a child, I didn’t really feel all the pain and anguish that was going on there,” he said. Still, he said, Shanghai saved his family’s lives.

In 1948, Gabler’s family moved to the United States. They landed in San Francisco.

“I’ll never forget the sight of the dawn on the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said.

It was in San Francisco he ate his first donut, had his first bowl of cereal with cream and ate his first hamburger.

“Those were big memories,” Gabler said.

Afterward, the family was resettled in a Jewish community in Pittsburgh. He never felt out of place in the U.S.

“We just became part of the landscape,” Gabler said.

Now, Gabler said, history is repeating itself.

“It’s the same thing all over again,” he said in response to a student, who asked for his opinion on the current refugee situation between U.S. and Mexico.

He said the idea of stopping immigrants from coming into the country for refuge is “horrible.”

“People haven’t been growing up,” he said. “… It’s like we’ve learned nothing.”

For Gabler, that’s the concern: that stories like his — stories of surviving the Holocaust, and the Holocaust itself — will be forgotten, and that no one will be around to say, “This happened.” He tells his story to keep it alive.

“That’s why I do this,” he said. “Because I want you guys to be the storytellers.”

Senior Zach Slegh said Gabler’s talk showed a different aspect of the Holocaust — one largely outside of Germany. It was also the first time he had heard about the Holocaust from someone who had lived through it.

“Hearing it from a person makes it easier to remember it … now we’re not going to forget it,” Slegh said. “… We’re going to keep the story going because he, you know, he came and talked to us about it.”

Part of that message was to remind students to tap into their own humanity. There are things people can do to make a difference.

“Be compassionate,” Gabler said. “And you can do that in a small town or a big town.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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