By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News
Some local high school seniors heard a first-hand story this week about a survivor of the Holocaust.
Dr. Robert “Bob” May spoke Monday at Mortimer Jordan High School about his experiences. May’s daughter, Ann M. Mollengarden, education coordinator at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center, also helped with May’s presentation.
The public was invited to the event, so several residents were also there, along with much of Mortimer Jordan’s senior class.
English teacher Lisa Byrd has invited Holocaust survivors to speak to her students for the past several years.
“The primary reason I invite speakers into my classroom is because it gives my students an opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of history, a history that demonstrates the horrors that can happen when one turns his back on another who needs an ally,” said Byrd. “My primary goal is for students to be aware of what is going on in their world, even if their world is limited to the halls of Mortimer Jordan.”
May told his story of persecution as a young boy in Camberg, Germany in the 1930s after Hitler came to power.
As a 10-year-old, May’s life at school became unbearable. He was the only Jewish boy in his class; he was surrounded by classmates who had joined the Hitler Youth and who constantly taunted and terrorized him.
One day he responded to a boy who called him a “dirty Jew” by calling the boy a “dirty Christian.”
After telling his mother about it, his mother reprimanded him.
“You must endure what they dish out,” his mother said, telling him not to say anything they could use against him later.
May’s family was split up because of deadly anti-Semitism in Germany. One brother was sent to Milan, Italy, and then to Lugano, Switzerland after he graduated from high school, because Jews were not allowed to go to college in Germany. Another brother was ousted from medical school after Jews were no longer permitted to attend; he went to Paris to study chemistry.
The brothers’ education, as well as May’s, were paid for in large part by their Uncle Siegmund.
May himself, at 10 years old, moved to Frankfurt with his aunt Emma to attend a Jewish Day School, and then to Brighton, England two years later when his school and their synagogue were burned during Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” — on Nov. 9-10, 1938. On this night, a wave of anti-Jewish violence took place throughout Germany and in other areas.
On the same night, May’s parents’ dry goods store and apartment in Camberg were also destroyed by Nazis. They escaped personal violence after a neighbor warned them in advance to get out of the apartment on that night. They sought refuge in a cemetery, and upon their return to town the next morning they were placed in jail for a few days under “protective custody.”
May and his family were finally reunited in New Orleans in September 1940, where he went on to become a medical doctor and serve in the U.S. Air Force.
He married his wife Anita in 1953 and practiced obstretrics and gynecology in Birmingham for almost 50 years. They have three children and eight grandchildren.
May’s Uncle Siegmund and Aunt Emma would later die at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“For many years, I didn’t tell my story in public,” May told the crowd on Monday. “But the idea of ‘never again’ is so important to me.”
May said that at first, talking about his experiences were traumatic for him, but it is easier now.
“It’s important to propagate it. It’s important you know it happened and can happen again,” he said.
Mortimer Jordan senior Hannah McCombs said May’s talk was “very inspiring” and made that period in history more alive for her. “People usually take it for granted,” she said.
Kayla Gohn, a senior, agreed.
“I’ve always learned about the Holocaust, but to finally meet someone and hear about it first-hand makes it more real,” she said. “It should always be taught.”
That is the reaction that Byrd, who has taught about the Holocaust for 16 years, hopes for.
“Many years from now when my students have families ... I want them to tell their children and grandchildren about the time they heard a Holocaust survivor speak,” she said. “I have found that, for the most part, students are captivated by this history. ... While I may encounter resistance at the prospect of reading Beowulf or Shakespeare, students ask to study this. What teacher could ask for more?”