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To Teach Empathy

By ALEX BURNESS | | The Denver Post January 25, 2020

Colorado’s oldest living Holocaust survivor will speak out “until the last of my breath”

At 98 years old, Fanny Starr is working to help pass a bill in the Colorado legislature to require Holocaust and genocide education in schools

Fanny Starr cuts off her own stream-of-consciousness recollection of the Holocaust to clutch a napkin and sigh deeply. “Memories,” she whispers after a beat.

Starr, who just turned 98, is often fidgeting with napkins, or tissues or paper towels. Whatever’s nearby. She’s been doing that as long as her daughters can recall.

“It calms me down,” Starr says, folding and unfolding the paper in her hand. “Memories — mom, daddy, my brother.” All of them died in German concentration camps. Only five out of her family of 60 survived the Holocaust. “Think about what I’m talking about,” Starr says. “It hurts.”

Starr, the oldest living Holocaust survivor in Colorado, interrupts her explanation of why she plays with paper to share a memory of her sister — one of many quick asides during a 90-minute interview over bagels at her Denver home.

“She was a genius, self-educated. If she was alive today — maybe she’d be a big professor,” Starr says. “She read all kind of books. Medical books. She was something else. Her name was Rose. Curly hair. I look for pictures of her, but nobody has it.”

Starr will share these memories with anyone who’ll listen. School groups, journalists, state lawmakers. She met with Gov. Jared Polis Thursday. In her living room is a letter from Barack Obama.

Lately she’s also involved with a proposed bill in the Colorado legislature that would set new standards for education in public schools about the Holocaust specifically and genocide in general. Starr’s daughter Helen proposed the bill to lawmakers over the summer, and Starr is now preparing to testify for it when its sponsors, Democratic state Reps. Dafna Michaelsen Jenet and Emily Sirota, introduce it in the coming weeks.

Most of the characters in Starr’s stories are dead. So are most of the Holocaust survivors she’s met over 50-plus years in Colorado. All the more reason, she says, for her to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive by sharing what she lived through.

“Until the last of my breath, I will talk about this,” she says. “I am a survivor. I know the pain and the agony, and I sympathize with the millions.”

She pauses there and squeezes the napkin. “Six million,” she says.

Her memory is incomplete. She thinks she was at Auschwitz for three weeks, but concedes she could be off. It was a long time ago; Monday marks the 75th anniversary of that camp’s liberation. “We didn’t know no date, no hour, no nothing,” Starr says.

There are plenty of other fuzzy facts. Her daughter Hilda jokes that sometimes it’s best just to pick one version of the truth and go with it.

But some details were long ago seared permanently and clearly.

“I was a tomboy. I was a ball of fire,” she says. “My parents had a grocery store. My mom worked in it and my dad did, too.”

Her smile melts away a few minutes later, as she describes her time at Bergen-Belsen: “I wore just a striped shirt. A long one, like a gown. This was our clothes in winter, bitter cold. The whole group gripped each other. We cried and screamed.”

She can’t quite explain how she survived the Holocaust. The day Bergen-Belsen was liberated, she was, in her words, a “walking zombie,” stricken with typhus. She spent two months recovering after being freed.

Starr grew up in Poland, and one day in 1939 the Nazis showed up at her home. They shot her dog and shattered her aquarium, flooding the unit. She and her parents and siblings were told to pack small bags and then forced onto the street to join others who’d been rounded up. They were sent into the Łódź Ghetto, where they stayed for about five years.

“We worked slave work,” Starr says. “I worked in a factory. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to have a thimble on my finger.”

The subject matter is impossibly dark, but she makes time to smile in between the heavy parts. She can’t help but hug everyone around her, sometimes more than once in a sitting.

Hugging someone, she says, “means you’re sincere, means that you care.”

Sirota felt that warmth during a recent visit to Starr’s home in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood — a home Starr and her late husband, Zase, lived in since it was built 56 years ago.

Sirota said she is honored to be running a bill to preserve the memories of Starr and the dwindling group of Holocaust survivors. “Our goal is to ensure that Fanny’s words and work are able to continue and live on through statute, so our children in Colorado know Fanny’s story, know the experiences,” says Sirota, whose grandparents fled eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Co-sponsor Michaelson Jenet has Holocaust survivors in her family.

“We ultimately want to have children and a society that is empathetic,” Sirota adds, “that understands the signs and the symptoms and all of the things that lead to something horrific, like the Holocaust, and that our children can learn from history and identify what is going on in the world currently. We want to have communities that treat each other with love, so we have kids and eventually adults who learn to identify hate and bigotry, and stand up to it.”

The governor also said he was honored to meet Starr. He said he supports the proposed legislation.

“Our state and country works best when we stand together against the voices of intolerance and bigotry, we reflect on our history and we fight for a world where everyone can live with dignity,” Polis said in a statement.

Rabbi Jay Strear, CEO of the organization Jewish Colorado, met with lawmakers recently to discuss the proposed bill. He says stories like Starr’s help bring the Holocaust to life for people who may at this point be generations removed from it.

“This wasn’t the massacre of 6 million people as a number. These were individual lives,” Strear says. “The power of the story — it allows us to put ourselves in a person’s shoes.” He shudders at the thought of his own teenage daughter in a Polish ghetto, cold and hungry and overworked, as Starr was at 15. Eighty-three years later, Starr can still picture that version of herself. “The sound of crying,” she says. “I can hear it.”

By now, the napkin has been creased and crumpled many times over.

“My parents, my friends — I cry for them,” Starr says. “There’s not a day, not an hour that goes by. I cry a lot.”

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