Legacy program brings Holocaust survivor’s tale to the classroom

By: Robin Ruehlen | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 31, 2012


BLOOMFIELD HILLS — As a Holocaust survivor, 88-year-old Mania Salinger has witnessed unspeakable horrors and overcome unimaginable odds.

As a speaker for teens at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills and with the Bloomfield Hills Schools Legacy Program, she wants to keep them laughing, keep them thinking and do her part to make them understand how bad things can get when hatred is allowed to flourish.

“I have been a speaker with the Holocaust Center for 25 years, and I’m considered a good speaker because I don’t pound so many tragedies on them,” she said.

“I try to instill in them … what it takes to live with obstacles in your life, problems and even sorrow, and how I handled it. I give them something to think about.”

On Nov. 13, Salinger, a West Bloomfield resident, will return for a second time to speak at Model High School in Bloomfield Hills as part of the Legacy Program. The program is new to the district this year and encourages local senior citizens to share their wisdom with small groups of students in a roundtable format.

BHS outreach volunteer Stephanie Crider said that when Salinger spoke in September, students were so riveted that they ended up missing their buses in order to hear more.

“They were literally on the edge of their seats — that’s how engaging she was,” Crider said.

Salinger was just 15 years old when Germany attacked Poland in September of 1939. Weeks later, she and her family were taken from their home in Radom, Poland, and placed in a ghetto established by the Nazis. She was later sent to the Pionki labor camp to work in the ammunition factory, before she and her sister were shipped on cattle cars to the Auschwitz camp, and eventually on to Bergen-Belsen.

She credits much of her survival on the fact that she spoke fluent German and so was chosen for office work in the camps rather than the backbreaking outdoor labor that killed so many prisoners.

“I had attended a private Catholic high school in Poland and it offered two foreign languages, German and French,” she said.

“Now, the French language is beautiful and the teacher was a nice lady. But the German teacher was this very handsome young guy. Keep in mind, I was 15. I tell the students, guess which language I took? I took every course that was offered in his classroom! ”

When Salinger returned to Poland years later, she tried to find the young teacher in order to say thank you. She was unable to locate him.

Although there are humorous parts to her story, Salinger does not entirely leave out her tales of sorrow, illness and despair that nearly caused her to give up.  Her mother and brother were gassed at Auschwitz, and her father was shot in Pionki just before the liberation.

“It was very hard. I was very sick. I almost didn’t make it. I tell them the story of Bergen-Belsen, which was a death camp. There was no more office work for me. I was just lying on the floor and waiting to die,” she said.

Salinger said many Model students had already read her memoir of surviving the Holocaust, titled “Looking Back,” and were ready with questions. 

“I remember being their age. I told them I was a spoiled kid from Poland, and then my life was turned upside down. And they had so many questions about how I survived, how I found my sister again, and what it was like to come to the United States not knowing the language.”

Salinger loves to tell the story of what happened when she was reunited with her sister at a displaced persons camp several months after the liberation. It was also where she met her future husband, a Jewish-American GI from the metro Detroit area.

“I told him stories about a whole group of Americans I had met, and that evening he started bringing me goodies. Two weeks later, he proposed — and I tell the kids I burst out laughing,” she said.

“But before I married him, my sister showed up. I was screaming when I saw her, because I didn’t think she had survived. And the first words out of her mouth were, ‘I hear you’re running around with a soldier.’”

Salinger said that in her years as a speaker she has received countless letters, phone calls and emails from students thanking her for sharing her story.

Recently, she said, she was at a volunteer appreciation luncheon when a man she did not recognize approached her.

“He said, ‘I have been a teacher for 35 years, and one day that stands out is the day I brought my class to hear you speak. The kids are still talking about you, and that was two years ago.’’

She said he told her that although she might not realize it, she changed lives that day.

“He took my hand and kissed it, and then he walked away. I was just sitting there open-mouthed and crying. I wish I had taken his name,” she said.

Although she usually speaks to high school students, Salinger said she had an unforgettable moment several months ago when asked to speak to a seventh-grade class from Madison Heights. Leery of speaking of her experiences to younger children at first, Salinger said her peers encouraged her to go through with it.

“They said, ‘You are able to put yourself on their level,’” she recalled.

“So, we talked about hatred of religion. I said to all of them, don’t hate. Don’t hate somebody that prays to a different god. If someone prays to a stone in the wall, don’t hate him. Just understand it and don’t hate. Take hatred out of your system, out of your vocabulary. Look at what happened to 6 million Jews because they turned their head to the sky and prayed to God. They weren’t hurting anybody. And they listened.”

Salinger said one student raised her hand and told her that she hated one of her classmates and wanted to know how to stop.

“I told her to take a piece of paper and start writing what she hates about her on one side. And on the other side, I told her to think. Maybe she cleans up her room nicely. Maybe she helps her mom or helps out in school.”

At the end of Salinger’s talk, the student ran up to her sobbing, and began hugging and kissing her, and told Salinger that she saved her life.

“It’s not easy to speak and remember. It’s upsetting and it takes a lot out of me, but it’s what I get out of it: the kids, their reflection, the hugs and kisses they give me after,” Salinger said.

“My story is a little different, but I’ve heard other survivors speak, and it upsets the kids and sometimes they cry. I don’t want to upset them that much. I wanted them to get a lot out of it, but in a different way.”

“Hearing Mrs. Salinger speak led the students into talking about Model’s culture, and how they wished every student in BHS could experience what they experience. The conversation just took off from there about curriculum,” Crider said.

Seniors who live within the Bloomfield Hills School District and are interested in learning more about the Legacy Program can contact Crider at (248) 792-5052 or stephaniecrider@comcast.net.

Model High School is located at 2800 Lahser Road in Bloomfield Hills.