Capturing the attention of about 100 sixth-graders is not an easy task, but Helen Korn Bissell had a spellbound audience at Evans Middle School on May 12.
The Evans resident spoke about the experiences of her father, Abe Korn, a Jew who survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Sixth-grade teacher Sandra Atkins and graduation coach Melanie Taylor had read her father's book, Abe's Story: A Holocaust Memoir , and they invited Bissell to speak to the students about the Holocaust.
Bissell described how her father and his family were among 2,000 people who lived in filthy conditions in Poland's Kutno ghetto, which was an abandoned sugar refinery.
"After a year, Abe, at 17, decided to try to escape" by bribing a guard with a watch, Bissell said. "He wanted to escape to try and help his family.
"He never saw his family again."
Bissell's father left Kutno for another ghetto, which he was allowed to leave during the day to work, but guards discovered that he was smuggling food for his family on the black market.
When he refused to tell the guards the names of other people who were involved, she said, he repeatedly was beaten with a horse whip until he was left for dead.
Bissell said he survived and went to live with other relatives. When they no longer could take care of him, he was sent to a concentration camp in a cattle car.
He eventually was sent to Auschwitz, where he found men half-clothed in the snow and police guarding the camp with attack dogs, she said.
"Auschwitz was a work camp. Auschwitz was a death camp," Bissell said. "The average prisoner only survived eight weeks at Auschwitz. Abe Korn survived 18 months at Auschwitz."
The sixth-graders attributed his survival to his youth, his bravery and his ability to work.
In addition, Bissell said, "He never gave up, and he never lost his faith."
In January 1945, she said, her father was one of 2,000 people who started a 45-day, 180-mile walk from Auschwitz to Buchenwald.
Despite severe frostbite and a foot infection, she said, he was one of only 200 people who survived the march.
The camp was liberated by American soldiers April 11, 1945, she said.
After the war, Bissell said, her father finished school, married a German Protestant woman and came to Augusta. He worked for no wages for a year to repay the sponsor who brought him here and he eventually became the owner of an auto parts distribution center.
"He came from nothing and succeeded," she said of her father, who died in 1971 when she was 10 years old.
Bissell's presentation seemed to resonate with her audience.
"I thought she told it very well, because you could actually have graphic pictures in your head," said Catherine Spargo, 12. "If you were actually there, it would be horrible. I'd rather die than have to go through that. I've heard a lot of stories about (the Holocaust), but this one was the most emotional."
After the presentation, Bissell said she was impressed with the sixth-graders' attentiveness and with the questions they asked. She said she had numerous messages that she wanted them to learn.
"We want them to know the historical side of what happened, and we want them to realize that today there is no room for prejudice in our lives," Bissell said. "Life is good, and they need to appreciate it every single day."
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