Barbara Turkeltaub, maybe 6 years old at the time, ran over to a ditch to retrieve a ball.
It was a “beautiful Sunday morning” in 1939, she recalled. And the last time she saw her friends alive on the playground before war planes brought bombs to her hometown of Vilna, Poland.
“Where there was sunshine. There was nothing but grief. The sky dark,” she said.
Turkeltaub, a Canton resident and Jewish survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, shared the story of the next eight years of her childhood to a room full of educators, mostly middle and high school teachers who cover sensitive subjects like the Holocaust and genocide.
Turkeltaub, one of two survivors who spoke Thursday, said Nazis were welcomed into her town shortly after the bombing. She described how they marched in like robots, and the town threw flowers.
When the Germans loaded Jewish children onto buses, her father made a plan to scatter the family to evade capture. Turkeltaub and her sister were sent to live with a Christian family in the country.
When the family feared Gestapo retaliation, Turkeltaub fled with her sister at night, hiding in a brick factory where they were discovered by a priest.
Raised in a convent for the remainder of the war, Turkeltaub survived when 95 percent of Jews in Vilna died in ghettoes, before firing squads or in concentration camps.
Still, she recalled with humor when she mistakenly quieted her sister with soap from a jar she thought was honey.
She also talked solemnly about the night she wandered away from the sanctuary into infamous Ponary forest, where she followed gunshots to a ditch filled with naked woman clutching babies.
“I was numb. I was numb,” she recalled. “I could not move.”
Turkeltaub was the final speaker at Walsh University during an Echoes and Reflections workshop, a national curriculum that trains educators to teach the Holocaust or genocide in age-appropriate classrooms.
“It made it real, being able to take her story back to the students,” said Heather Haden, a Highland Square resident who coordinates programs for the Massillon Museum.
The event was sponsored by the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education and Walsh University, and organized by Marilyn Feldman of the Ohio Council for Holocaust and Genocide Education.
“We don’t concentrate on the deaths. We concentrate on the lives and the lives cut short,” said Feldman, who stressed that students should never be made to feel uncomfortable and graphic material should be reserved for mature high school classrooms.
Educators attending the seminar were given a free curriculum — filled with multimedia resources and first-hand accounts of the Holocaust. Sample lessons are available at echoesandreflections.org.
Educators also took with them the importance of integrating authentic materials — such as photographs, diaries and other documents — and personal accounts — whether written or videotaped — into their lessons.
“We and our students are the last generation to hear these stories, so what lies upon us is a big responsibility to pass this on,” said Sara Weiss, a presenter and executive director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education.
Turkeltaub’s story contains elements that program facilitators encourage every teacher to introduce.
It was personal. A little girl born to a middle class family is separated from her family, sheltered in convents and flees from an invasion that claims her father and two sisters.
And it was historical, transpiring in a town still torn by a first world war. After the war ended, Turkeltaub’s mother — who was wounded and left for dead in that Ponary forest ditch — searched for two years before she found what was left of her family.
Then they fled again, this time from the Soviet Union.
“She was afraid of Communism as much as she was afraid of Nazism. So we fled to Israel,” Turkeltaub said.
She later married Joseph Turkeltaub, who survived two concentration camps in Germany and lost 30 immediate family members to the war.
The two eventually immigrated to the U.S.
As Turkeltaub finished her story, she left the room of educators with words of encouragement, crafted from a terrible experience.
“Teach your students to be human,” she said. “Reading, writing and arithmetic are only important if you use them to teach you students to be humane.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.