YORKTOWN, N.Y.-- When Steve Berger was the same age as the students he spoke to last week he was forced to move into a ghetto in his hometown in Hungary simply for being Jewish.
“I was 16, completely unprepared, mentally and physically,” Berger told students at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES Friday.
Berger spoke of how his school had been closed, how food was scarce and he was forced to wear a yellow star sewn to his coat to identify him as Jewish. He wasn't allowed to use the local library, the swimming pool, public transportation or bicycles.
Berger, who is now in his 80s and lives in Queens, told the students about how his life changed when he was 16, in 1944 when World War II was almost over. Problems, he said, were still rampant through his own country and others in Europe.
Berger told his story to the students, of a time when he had to bury his own books so they wouldn't be burned, of slave labor in a factory, of hiding his mother and sister in a cellar under piles of rugs and of hiding in a bomb shelter with locals hoping they wouldn't give him away.
“I had luck,” he said.
For the students, the story was more than one about good fortune in a time of crisis.
“His story isn’t just a tale of the horrors,” said Lonnie Rock Nugent, a BOCES student from Mt. Kisco. “It’s an adventure. He was a risk taker. He really lived that experience and he didn’t take it lying down.”
A student asked Berge how he kept his faith at a time when it was what caused him to be persecuted.
“I knew I was right and they were wrong,” he said. “You don’t know how good freedom feels until you lose it.”
Once the war was over, Berger and his family moved to the United States, and he became an engineer. Two of his friends from the ghetto in Hungary became doctors and live nearby.
“Sometimes we get together now to talk about the old days,” he said.
A frequent lecturer, Berger says he believes it is important to share his experience with young people so they will be alert to avoid having such tragedies happen again.