Gov. Mike Parson has signed a proclamation speaking out against anti-Semitism, and the Governor's Mansion was host Wednesday afternoon to a commemoration of the Holocaust.
As Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski — an honored speaker at the commemoration with her daughter — said, "I hope that the world will make change for the better, and to take out the hate. This is all because of hate."
Warshawski and daughter Regina Warshawski Kort spoke Wednesday at the Governor's Mansion as part of "Missouri Commemorates the Holocaust" — an event organized by the state's Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"We have to do this every year," the commission's Chair Jean Cavender said, because keeping the history of the Holocaust alive for future generations to remember and learn from gets more difficult with time.
The commission has been organizing the event at the Mansion for months. Cavender, also the director of the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center in St. Louis, greatly appreciated the recognition from state leadership — "all the better" to have a state-level commemoration in addition to local ones in various cities.
"The governor and I often say that in Missouri, we like to think we celebrate diversity. We have many different cultures, many different people that come from many different walks of life, and some have a little bit more tragic way of getting to Missouri than others. We want to make sure we continue to remember those folks, remember those stories; they're so vitally important as who we are as a people, who we are as a state," Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said, who spoke at the commemoration for Parson.
For Warshawski, 93, anti-Semitism is not just something she's read about. She experienced the cruel, ultimately not fully imaginable fruits of it in the Holocaust: saw families — including her own — be separated; tasted dehydration in freight cars packed with people being shipped to their deaths; felt the bullet that pierced her chest; smelled the bodies of the dead.
"I speak for those who didn't make it," she said. She grew up in Miedzyrzec, Poland, and was 17 years old when Nazis forced her and her family into a ghetto, where they lived for two years.
Her family had a hiding place under the floorboards, and it did work, until dogs were brought in to search for them as the ghetto was liquidated and people were sent off to death camps.
Warshawski and her mother were deported to Majdanek; Treblinka, the death camp they were originally bound for, wasn't killing people fast enough and trains had to be re-routed.
"Thanks to my mom, I made it," she said of surviving Majdanek. The infamous SS physician Josef Mengele made sure her mother would not make it, though, and Warshawski watched her mom walk to her death in a gas chamber.
The SS was established as Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard unit, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the group went on to become the Nazi regime's elite guard, charged with leading the murder of European Jews.
Warshawski was also later sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen camps. She was liberated by British soldiers at Belsen, and she also met her husband there. She and John came to Kansas City in 1948.
Warshawski didn't have near enough time Wednesday to tell her whole story, but there's a documentary about her — "Big Sonia" — and a videotaped oral history session with her is available for free through the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education at mchekc.org/portfolio-posts/warshawskisonia/.
Helias Catholic High School English teacher Sarah Kempker — who was invited with fellow Helias English teacher Kathy Jarman to the event — said the knowledge she and Jarman will be studying on the Holocaust this summer in Poland "made this (event) that much more special."
Cavender said next year's commemoration will hopefully be in the state Capitol's Rotunda.