Respect each other and don't give up.
It's a simple message, but one that rang loudly in the West Morris Central High School auditorium Wednesday morning.
Holocaust and Death March survivor Olga Menczer spoke to a packed house on Wednesday morning to share her experiences as part of the National Week of Respect.
"People are prejudice, and it's very important that you know that you need to accept each other as you are," she said. "Some people are as small as I am, some people are tall, black, white, yellow. But we are all the same, we are all human beings and we all have red blood."
Menczer began by talking about her childhood in Budapest, which was quite idyllic. "I was a happy child; I had friends, I had fun, everything was good and then I was a teenager," she said. "I learned to dance and I even had a boyfriend. But in March 1944, everything changed for the people; it was a different time for us, no more fun, just worry."
Menczer spoke about the Nazi persecution of not just Jews, but other races and religions considered "different."
"There was not only Jewish people there; they had Gypsies, they had homosexuals," Menczer said. "It was not only the Jews."
There were big changes, she said. All the Jews had to wear a Jewish yellow star on their clothes and they were put in Jewish housing. "We had to leave just about everything behind. We took some clothes, a blanket, a pillow, and we moved in with a different family; they had to share their home with total strangers," Menczer said.
"Even though we were allowed to go out on the street until five o'clock we didn't go out too much because we were frightened that we were going to get picked up," she added. "This happened because they didn’t like us."
Menczer went on to talk about how she was separated from most of her family as the Jews were transferred by train to concentration camps in Germany. She spoke about the inhumane conditions–like having to strip naked in front of SS officers, sleeping on the floor without blankets or pillows and not having sanitary bathrooms–at the camps and the drastic injustices her people suffered.
"People were dying that looked like skeletons," she said. "We had very little food, sometimes we didn't eat. We had lice in all our clothes."
After a "fortnight" at the camps, "we were put together in a group and anybody that was able to walk was taken to the so-called Death March," the survivor said. "During the day we were marching on the side of the highway and at night we slept on the road. We had nothing–NOTHING–to eat and of course nothing to drink. Anybody who could not keep up was shot. Most of them just died of starvation."
But on May 6, 1945, Menczer's world changed once again. The war was over and she was sent home.
"It took many, many days to recover because we were so (malnourished)," she said. "Our first question was about our parents," Menczer added. "We were told our parents were alive. We were reunited again."
After returning home, Menczer said she lived in South America for many years, then came to the United States in 1958. For the last 10 years she has lived in New Jersey.
"So my message to you is, just as I have always hoped and prayed that I can survive to see my parents, it's important to never give up," she said. "I am talking to you and life is good, enjoy the time you have.
"Don’t ever give up."