Holocaust survivor comes to Bethel Middle

By Emily Fama | Apr 11, 2014
Photo by: Donated photo Eric Wellisch, a 93-year-old Asheville resident and Holocaust survivor, visited Bethel Middle School to discuss his life as a Jewish teenager in Austria. BMS students pictured on the bottom row, from left, are Elijah Higgins, Daniel LaFata, Allie Fisher. Students pictured on the top row, from left, are Will Stowers, Zachary Reece, Ben Smathers, Regan Lunsford,Ashley DuVall and Elijah Wilson.

Last week, the Media Center at Bethel Middle School was enveloped with earnest silence as Dr. Eric Wellisch, a 93-year-old Asheville resident and Holocaust survivor, began recounting his life as a Jewish teenager growing up in Austria in the days that led up to the beginning of World War II.

As he spoke and shared artifacts, which included a German flag, an original passport and pictures of destroyed synagogues from Kristallnacht, spellbound students were taken back in time to a very dark and troubled part of history.

Wellisch’s lecture was the culminating event that wrapped up a Holocaust Unit where seventh and eighth-grade students read novels, biographies, autobiographies, and other texts about the time period in an effort to understand the past. Students were able to see how learning and understanding past events helps us to understand other people and the world around us on a deeper and global level.

The theme of perseverance was also woven into the unit as students attempted to comprehend the level of endurance that was necessary to survive in those times.

To represent what students learned, seventh grade students created in-depth symbolism projects to encompass the many facets of the Holocaust and levels of suffering that were prevalent at that time and have carried through to present day.

Eighth-grade students wrote identity letters based on the stories of Jews who survived or lost their lives during the Holocaust. The projects were introspective and historical, telling the story of the Holocaust from individual Jewish perspectives; the projects were displayed in the hall and in the library for Wellisch to observe during his visit.

Not only did Wellisch vividly share his experience, including fleeing Europe and pulling into the New York Harbor to cast his eyes on The Statue of Liberty for the first time, but he also shared his sense of humor and wit with the students as they asked him questions about his past.

When seventh-grader Elijah Higgins asked, “If you could change one decision that you have made in your life, what would that decision be and why?” Wellisch smiled, and said, “I would have married my wife sooner.”

His humorous approach to life and survival was also evident to Paula Bolado, the eighth-grade language arts teacher.

“Using humor helps students know there is a silver lining to such sadness of our collective past,” Bolado said. “To meet him expanded their world of tolerance, global awareness, human suffering and human rights.”

In 1943, Wellisch signed on as an American soldier and joined the 44th Combat Engineering Battalion and was a part of Patton’s army.

When asked how they felt about having Wellisch speak, seventh-grade teacher Jennifer Mabry said, “Realizing that survivors of the Holocaust are so few, having him share his experiences and memories of such a tragic time in our history was truly unforgettable.”

His story is riveting, and the students and staff at BMS were honored to have him visit.