BILLINGS — Ida Paluch-Kersz, a survivor and hidden child of the holocaust, recently spoke to Billings West High School students about her life in Poland amid Nazi occupation during World War II to the present day.
“If somebody asks me which college or which university I went to, I say, ‘I went to holocaust university,’” said Paluch-Kersz.
When she was three years old, her father had become estranged in the wake of war after enlisting in the Polish army. Her mother died by suicide when the Nazis tried to separate her from her children.
“It was hell; it was real hell … You have nightmares," said Paluch-Kersz.
She now works with both the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and The Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation to share her story of the horrors of the holocaust with younger generations in the hope of, she said, keeping history from repeating itself.
“I have a family, roof over my head, clothes to wear and a school to go to. So, I’m just very thankful," said Jacie Chapweske, a 15-year-old Miles City high school student who heard Paluch-Kersz speak on Monday.
Many students said they maintain a strong sense of connection with the 84-year-old after she has come and gone from her lectures. One former West High student in particular, Alyssa Cash, now shares a unique bond with Paluch-Kersz. The two exchange ceramic shoes.
“Growing up, I had my own shoe collection … We are in totally separate spheres of the world, and different lives, but we had this unique connection around these shoes," said Cash.
These ceramic shoes are, according to the survivor, a symbol of her messages about the power of kindness and humanity,
“During the war, it was hard to find a shoe or any kind of clothing. I thought, let (Cash) look at that and think about it," said Paluch-Kersz.
Cash said she has added several shoes to her collection since meeting Paluch-Kersz; many were sent in honor of major life milestones.
“When I bought my first house, she sent me a shoe. When I got married, she sent me a shoe … I don’t wanna take that lightly in any way. That’s something that I want to value," said Cash.
Danny Spungen with The Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation, whom Paluch-Kersz describes as her angel, said it is more important than ever to capture and share the stories of holocaust survivors because, as time goes on, they will only become more rare. The act of sharing stories and spreading awareness about the events of the holocaust is something Paluch-Kersz said is "her duty."
“This trip to Billings, right now, it could be the end," said Spungen.