Reconciling the past: A former Nazi and a Holocaust survivor share their experiences during WWII


Students speak with former German Nazi Ursula Martens and Holocaust survivor Erika Jacoby after the all-school assembly. Credit: Caitlin Chung

Casey Kim

In an effort to inspire future change, former German Nazi Ursula Martens and Holocaust survivor Erika Jacoby shared their different experiences during World War II at an all-school assembly Wednesday. Xenia Bernal ’19 hosted the speakers in partnership with the Righteous Conversations Project, a program of the non-profit organization Remember Us.

Bernal said that, in addition to facilitating conversation about difficult subjects, she invited Martens and Jacoby in order to connect individuals with such contrasting backgrounds.

“I have always been in love with the idea of focusing on the similarities we have as human beings rather than the differences, because people often think that the differences are much larger than they actually are,” Bernal said. “I think that it’s important for not only Harvard-Westlake students, but all students and young people to find their similarities in order to create this kind of progressive change.”

Bernal then mediated the question-and-answer style conversation by asking the two speakers to recall their memories from the war.

Martens, who joined the Hitler Youth before she turned 10 years old, said she was indoctrinated to fully support the Nazi regime.

“It’s very hard to explain, but it was almost like Hitler was a father to us,” Martens said. “What he said was what he wanted us to do and what we wanted to do. It wasn’t bad at the time, but in the meantime we were fed all this Nazi stuff which I now see is terrible.”

At a young age, Jacoby was taken from her home in Hungary, confined in the Auschwitz concentration camp with other members of her family and forced to labor for the Nazis.

“If I didn’t do exactly what I was told to do, [the leaders of the camp] would just hit,” Jacoby said. “I was probably the lucky one because I wasn’t killed by the guns or the gas, but there were these Germans who had clubs in their hands, and if they didn’t like something, they would just hit you on the head.”

After the invasion of Germany, Martens and her family fled her hometown. She said the end of the war was the first time she realized the extent to which Hitler had controlled the state.

“It took me a long time to make peace with myself,” Martens said. “I blamed myself too because I believed what Hitler had said, even though I was just a child. We didn’t know what really went on, and we would be taken away if we didn’t do what Hitler wanted us to do. And we did it willingly, with all our heart, but that was the start of my guilt. It’s taken me this long to process what I felt I had done, just like anybody who had actually killed a person.”

Upon her release from Auschwitz, Jacoby said she expressed her anger by destroying Nazis’ possessions.

“After the war, when I was liberated, I took some kind of a stick and went into a Nazi house,” Jacoby said. “I broke all the porcelains that I could see. There was no leadership, nobody to tell us what to do. When you’re angry, you don’t ask permission for anything. You do what you have to do to release. So the day after we were liberated, that’s what we did. We destroyed. And after the day was over, we sat down and cried.”

Martens and Jacoby concluded their stories by urging students to actively participate in their communities to prevent the possibility of similar atrocities from recurring in the future.

“I want you all to remember that you are all responsible for each other,” Jacoby said.  “You are not responsible for what has happened, but you’re responsible now for your behavior. You are responsible to know that [a similar atrocity] can happen if you close your eyes, if you don’t want to see what is happening in this world. But you cannot isolate yourselves because you think you are not like that. You are part of the people around you, and you are as responsible as I am for human behavior. So, it is your job to remember. Remember what you heard from me and from Ursula. It is my hope that your generation will never allow what happened to my generation to happen again.”

The assembly also included a screening of “Hold the Sun in Your Hands: The Erika Jacoby Story,” an animated film that recounted Jacoby’s experience during the Holocaust. Bernal and other students created the film over the summer through the Righteous Conversations Project, an initiative to bring Holocaust survivors and teens together.