A Holocaust survivor and the grandfather of Saint Viator High School freshman, Sarah McDermott, appeared before the student body on Tuesday, and at the outset, he made one request: “Be my ambassadors.”
“You are the last generation to hear from a survivor,” Steen Metz of Lincolnshire told the more the nearly 800 freshmen, sophomores and juniors gathered. “I need you to tell my story so people never forget.”
Metz went on to ask them to tell at least four people about what they heard, and that way he will have reached nearly 30,000 people from that one appearance.
Since 2011, when Metz began telling his story to groups, he figures he has spoken to more than 28,000 people, most of whom he says have been students.
“If you multiply that by four,” he adds, “I’ve reached more than 100,000 people. It’s become my mission, my passion and my life’s work to talk to students like yourselves.”
Metz went on to describe his background of growing up in Odense, Denmark, near Copenhagen, when his world was shattered in 1940, the day the Nazis invaded Denmark.
At the time, Metz was 5. He and his parents lived in a third-floor apartment, and his father worked as a litigation attorney while his mother was a homemaker. The family continued their normal routine for three years after the occupation, until a fateful day in October of 1942, when the Gestapo knocked on their door.
“I was very aware of the occupation. Bicycling to and from school, I would see the Nazi officers walking down the street and I avoided them,” he told the students. “But I didn’t know why they came to our apartment. I didn’t know I was Jewish. All I knew was that I was a Dane.”
He and his parents spent three days and nights in a boxcar—in complete darkness—jammed with others. Ultimately, they traveled 550 miles to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Metz described how there was no gas chamber, but instead it was a forced labor camp, where prisoners slept in flea and lice-infested barracks, with soup made of broth and the skins of potatoes leftover from the Nazis.
His father died of starvation within six months after arriving, leaving Metz and his mother to carry on. She worked in a factory splintering minerals used in insulation of war machines while young Metz was a message carrier.
There was no school for the more than 15,000 children who passed through there. When Metz returned to Theresienstadt many years later, he learned that less than 10 percent of those children had survived.
Ultimately, on April 15, 1945, prisoners at Theresienstadt were liberated by the Red Cross from Sweden. Their release came less than one month before the end of the war and one month before the opening of a newly installed gas chamber at the camp.
Metz returned to his home in Odense, and his school. He went on to graduate from high school and commercial college before building a career in the food industry, which took him to England Canada, where he met his wife.
The couple moved to Chicago in 1962, but it wasn’t until a dozen years after his retirement in 1999 that he began to publicly tell his story. He now has written a book, “A Danish Boy in Theresienstadt: Reflections of a Holocaust Survivor.”
After his presentation, students had time for only a couple of questions, including one by freshman Brad Kessler: “How did you keep up hope?”
“I heard my mother tell a reporter that we never gave up hope, that we couldn’t afford to. But we often wondered where was God,” Metz said candidly. “How could God let this happen.”
Fr. Corey Brost, CSV, president, encouraged students to not only tell Metz’s story to four people but to stand up against bigotry, hatred and stereotypes of other religions.
“I feel like we’re standing in the presence of greatness, of goodness—of holiness,” Fr. Brost said to Metz. “We have been blessed to have heard this story from an angel.”
Afterward, students in the audience, led by junior Beau Kellner, gave Metz a heartfelt standing ovation.
“I just thought it was very moving to hear his story; I’ve never heard anything like that,” Beau said. “It’s so important that we never let this die.”
Watch his presentation below: