The good people were silent, survivor tells kids in Sonoma

In a small classroom at Sonoma State University, Romanian-born Professor Paul Benko tells the story of how he survived the Holocaust.

A dapper man in his late 60s, Benko begins by recounting an episode that occurred when he was 11.

"I went swimming with friends, and I was walking home in my bathing suit when a policeman stopped me," he says. "I'd known this policeman since I was 3 years old — it was a small town — but I didn't have my Hungarian-issued ID card with me. So he arrested me and threw me into jail."

As they listen, those in the audience become very still. Possibly, they are imagining themselves in the professor's place — for, at the ages of 10, 11 and 12, they could easily have been in the same situation.

Benko's lecture, which took place late last month, was part of a workshop on Holocaust awareness for children organized by the Jewish Community Agency of Sonoma County in conjunction with Sonoma State's annual Yom HaShoah service.

Ten children and six parents attended the workshop at the Rohnert Park campus, where Benko went on to describe his life in a ghetto and various concentration camps.

"You're the first generation which is slightly removed from the Holocaust," Benko told the audience. "When you read about the Holocaust, you might think that the whole world is evil. The truth is that not everybody was evil, but the tragedy was that many of the good people were silent."

The children's workshop was the inspiration of Ariella Taggart, former principal of Congregation Ner Shalom Dor Hadash School in nearby Cotati. Taggart says she wanted to pass on a sense of Holocaust awareness to a younger generation.

"There were fewer and fewer people coming to the annual commemoration ceremony, and hardly any kids at all," she says. "That bothered me."

Although some educators disagree, Taggart contends that children can be exposed to information about the Holocaust at an early age. She remembers that when growing up in Israel, she and her classmates began studying the facts of the Holocaust in fourth grade.

"I'm a true believer that you can talk to kids about the Holocaust," she says. "The purpose is not to scare them or make them hate Germans. The main goal is just that kids should be alert to what's out there."

For Santa Rosa resident Dan Bornstein and 10-year-old son Jason, the workshop provided an opportunity to discuss their family history.

"I'm the child of a survivor," said Bornstein, "so I think it's important for Jason to learn about these things."

Peter Krohn of Sebastopol, who brought 11-year-old son Zack to the workshop, concurred. "Sometimes it's hard to know what's appropriate, but I want to help Zack feel part of a larger community and to learn about the issues of the past in a gentle but informative way."

Both boys seemed impressed and moved.

"When the professor talked about his experiences in the camps, it made me feel angry and sad at the same time," Zack said.

Jason agreed. "It was interesting to hear what he went through," he said. "I talk about it sometimes at school with my non-Jewish friends and they say that they're sorry for me.

"But I think I'm lucky I was born now, and not back then."