Holocaust survivor shares his story with Sound of Music cast
"The hills are alive, with the sound of music."
These familiar lyrics from one of our most popular musicals, the "Sound of Music," indeed have come alive for some Blooming Prairie High School students.
These students were part of the high school drama department's production performed last week.
To connect this acting experience with some world history, Blooming Prairie High School play director Tamzen Johnson brought in a Holocaust survivor, Fred M.B. Amram, to relate his real life experiences.
Amram is a retired University of Minnesota professor and a noted author. He is an award-winning professor of communication and creativity.
Amram, 86, is a tiny physical figure who provides a giant-sized portrayal of his youth, witnessing the early beginnings of the Holocaust.
Johnson, following up on a suggestion by musical director Amelia Harthan, decided to open play practice on a particular Sunday afternoon by introducing this mighty mite of a man to her play cast members.
Harthan's father, Stephen Eskelson of Oak Grove, is a friend of Amram.
The Blooming Prairie High School choir room became a world history classroom for an hour preceding regular play practice.
Cast members were silent as they listened to Amram unravel the parts of Holocaust history that he lived and remembers.
Amram told the cast members that he was "intrigued" with the drama department "marrying my stories" with The Sound of Music.
Amram has authored books and articles about creativity, inventors, robotics and communication. He has been curator of exhibitions about creativity and woman inventors throughout the United States. He has provided worldwide consulting services to industry, government agencies and to educational institutions.
Amram was born in Hanover, Germany, where he experienced the early years of the Holocaust.
As a child survivor, Amram's memory of events is surprisingly clear. The transition to a new language and culture was difficult but he emphasizes that the alternatives were worse. He said it was relatively easy to escape the tentacles of a dictatorship and end up in the United States.
Amram has authored several books but the one he is most proud of is entitled "We're in America Now: A Survivor's Stories."
Following his 90-minute Power Point lecture, Amram obliged the many requests by students and adults to get a copy of his book. He graciously autographed each book and inscribed some books when asked.
Amram started his talk by outlining warning signs of the Holocaust and asked the question, "Could it happen in the U.S.?" His lecture centered around deaths, concentration camps and the 6 million Jews who were killed. Overall, 11 million people were killed, he said.
"The question I raise is how did we get here?" Amram remarked.
"The Holocaust didn't just happen over night," Amram said. Hitler became chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30, 1933. Amram was born on Sept. 19, 1933. The Sound of Music was set in Austria beginning in 1938 when Captain Georg von Trapp saw the takeover of Austria by the Germans.
He is ordered to accept a commission in the German navy, but he opposed the Nazis.
Amram was born in a Catholic infants shelter. His birth certificate contains the signature of a nun with her title spelled out as Mother Superior. Jewish hospitals had been closed at this time and Jews were prohibited from using public hospitals. Signs proclaimed Juden Verboten (Jews Forbidden).
Jews were deprived of citizenship rights as American newspapers reported.
"In every genocide, there is separation with them and us," Amram explained. Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David, signifying their identity.
Amram showed a photo of himself at age 5 in 1938. "I look well fed and am not starving yet," he commented.
He lovingly described his mother as a caring person. "She could whistle with the birds and I believe they had a conversation going on," Amram chuckles.
He talked about separation occurring with benches being designated for Jews and others for Ayrians. The Jewish benches were far outnumbered, he said.
"What would you do in Blooming Prairie if you had only one bench?" Amram asked rhetorically. "Would you stretch out the sign?" he asked.
He said most people stood by and did nothing. These occurrences happened before the 6 million deaths and before the gas chambers and skeletons, Amram vividly explained.
As a child, Amram recalls going to the ice cream store and being told by the owner that he could not serve Jews any longer.
He asked a question he had posed earlier, "Could this happen in the U.S.?" He answered by showing slides of segregation being practiced in America, signs that labeled areas "white" and "colored only."
Amram said Americans eventually responded that these atrocities should not happen here.
Jews had to carry identification cards and in 1938, all Jews had to have middle names. Men carried "Israel" as a middle name and women were forced to use "Sarah" as a middle name.
Dehumanization began to occur. Amram showed a photo of himself in front of a synagogue. "I took a selfie," he laughed, inciting his classroom to join in the humor.
He then told of the synagogue burning on Nov. 9, 1938. He also told of 7,000 Jewish shops being looted by Germans. He called it the "Night of the Broken Glass."
"What would you do?" Amram asked his listeners. "What you do matters," he responded.
Amram said there were thousands more people than police. "What if they had said 'no', there might not have been 6 million deaths."
Amram told of the Gestapo visiting his home after knocking three times. "They were looking for men; my father was never home," Amram revealed.
He tells of the Gestapo taking his family's radio. He also tells of air raids and hearing the monotonous sirens. "We could see the airplanes and bombs being dropped. We hid under a table."
Amram's presentation fell into place, chapter by chapter and often was distinguished by a pensive mood.
The genocide then began and people turned into skeletons, Amram said. He said Auschwitz was the worst of the death camps. It was built in 1941 but did not become functional until 1942.
Amram showed photos of the gas chamber entrance. "People became ashes and smoke," he said. To make a comparison, he showed death camps existing in Rwanda.
Showing family photos, Amram said these were real people. His grandmother was the family member who took him to the zoo when he was young. His Uncle Jacob taught him how to drive. They were both murdered.
Amram's presentation became highly emotional as he told about a girl cousin, Aaltje, being murdered at age 3 1/2.
Amram said many people were displaced. "We came to America as refugees, not as immigrants," he says. "Does that remind you of 2019!" Amram stated.
"What's the take-away from all of this?" Amram asked. There has to be a call to action, he said.
"Have you had an enough moment?" Amram asked as he offered a comment from one of his students, who said "I've had enough and I'm going to do something."
Knowledge and action represent power, Amram believes.
Amram closed his presentation, saying he officially became a German citizen again just a few years ago. This statement was met with loud applause.
Amram encouraged his listeners to check out his website at www.fredamram.com.
"Write me and I promise I will answer you," Amram told his audience.