A month ago, when she first discovered the news, teacher Christine Henry tried in vain to conceal her excitement from the 27 fifth-graders scattered throughout her classroom.
“I told them immediately; I couldn’t keep it a secret,” said Henry, a fifth-grade teacher at Marguerite Christian Elementary. When she told her class that a Holocaust survivor would soon be visiting “their eyes just bulged.”
Dr. Roger Loria, 70, first spoke with Henry’s students in Marguerite Christian’s Center-Based Gifted program (CBG) two years ago during their unit study of World War II and the Holocaust, to teach the students historical relevance, through insights of primary sources, such as people and biographical texts. Last Thursday, he returned, lecturing to students in the same gifted program.
Wearing a dark jacket, dress shirt and tie, Dr. Loria, a professor at VCU, stood at the projector at the front of the classroom while the tiny yet precocious students sat on the ground surrounding him; not far behind them were parents sitting in chairs. He started the lecture with an overview of the historical era in which he and his family were victimized as Jews, explaining the notion of racial purity implemented by Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.
Loria told the attentive children of his “misfortune” of being three weeks old when the Germans invaded Belgium, his native country, and subsequently fleeing with his family to avoid fatal persecution.
“Anybody who was considered different was a target and would be killed. So, clearly this was a tremendous disaster across the world,” he said.
“It is important to see that it doesn’t matter what you are – blue, green, yellow, white, black – it makes no difference. All of it is plain hate and you cannot and should not take advantage of somebody because he eats something different, dresses differently, it makes no difference. It’s all the same form of one trying to put somebody down,” Loria explained.
In sharing his personal experiences during a violent and incomprehensible period of world history, he expressed how he was separated from his family, held in various concentration camps in Belgium and France, and still to this day recalls images of him fleeing uniformed Nazi officers.
One of the many photographs displayed on his presentation was him as a seven-year old boy which identified him as a political prisoner. “Now I can tell you at the age of seven I couldn’t even spell ‘politics’, so clearly it shows you how absurd it is that a seven-year old can be a political prisoner.”
After he concluded his formal lecture, Loria sat down in a rocking chair facing the class and parents. It was in this question and answer period that a student’s question would prompt him to reveal his purpose in speaking that day.
“One of the reasons I’m here today is because I think it’s important to recognize that we have a lot of hate groups,” mentioning that the US has over 1,000 hate groups. “And we need to be vigilant, and we, particularly you kids, need to remember that there are people who hate no matter what; so it’s important that you keep that in mind and not let it get to you.”
Once all questions were addressed, children and adults sprung up from their seats and chatter filled the room as many had a chance to speak to the Holocaust survivor, at the very least getting his autograph.
Of the students listening intently to Loria lecture, one in particular absorbed the essence of his message. “I think he taught that no matter how you look, you’re the same person. He kind of taught the same message as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just in a different context,” said fifth-grader Jackson Downs, 11.
On Friday, since the topic the day before was so intense, perhaps a challenge to understand, Henry had a “decompression day”, incorporating a discussion period and allowing her students to express their thoughts from Dr. Loria’s visit. She said that every one of the students took something differently away from the lecture. One in particular stuck in her mind.
“One of the children said that one thing they will always remember is him saying that he had a choice whether he was going to live or whether he was just going to dwell on the negative. He chose to live a happy life,” said Henry a few days later.
And a happy life he chose. Loria has become a full-time professor of microbiology and immunology at VCU, eventually discovering new pharmaceutical drugs that protect people from lethal radiation injuries.
“I know that it takes a lot out of him to share his stories, so the fact that he comes out and he’s willing to do it, I’m just so appreciative of it,” said Henry.
Days later, Loria reflects on his visit to Marguerite Christian Elementary.
“The kids’ responses were rather special. First, you could see their innocence and them really trying to seek and understand, and there were rather good responses. They were trying to grasp the issue and follow it and I think they did,” he said.
Henry plans on having Loria to speak next year when the World War II unit is once again covered in her class, but she said she is mostly excited that this year’s students had the rare chance to meet a true-to-life survivor of the Holocaust.