Holocaust survivors honored at Pepperdine

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Holocaust survivor Bernd Simon speaks last week at Pepperdine about his tribulations during World War II. Bernd and his wife married and moved to the U.S. after both survived internment in concentration camps. Photo by Ron Hall

Bernd and Judy Simon, 91 and 88, spoke last week at Pepperdine University about their experiences in WWII concentration camps in the hope that future inhumanities can be prevented through education.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to the Malibu Times

A Jewish couple who survived the Holocaust was hailed as a pair of heroes last week at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library, as Bernd and Judy Simon’s story of tragedy, survival and love is serving as the inspiration for a new educational project to teach ethics.

The Simons recalled heartbreaking tales of their internment at concentration camps before being released at the end of the war. The pair later met, married and immigrated to the United States.

Judy, now 88, was 20 years old when Germany occupied her home country of Hungary. She recounted in vivid detail the day when her family was removed from their home by Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, enduring hard labor, starvation and sadly, separation.

“We tried our best to be together,” she said.

The war would come to an end less than a year later, but Judy was separated from her parents when she was transferred to a camp in Lippstadt, Germany. There she was forced to make hand grenades to be used against Allied forces. When she asked a Nazi guard if he knew the fate of her parents, she said he taunted her by pointing to the gas chambers and furnaces in the distance.

“Can’t you see the smoke?” the guard replied. “Can’t you smell the terrible smell? Can’t you tell what happened to your parents? Can’t you guess?”

Judy was freed when German forces surrendered in April 1945, and the first thought on her mind was reuniting with her family, and especially her mother, with whom she was very close.

“All I wanted was to see my parents,” she said.

Tragically, it was not to be, as Judy never saw her parents again. She departed for Munich and went to work for a division of the United Nations, where she met Bernd Simon, a German Jew whose family was also raided from their residence in Essen on Nov. 9, 1938, also known as Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass.”

Bernd, 91, said his “journey of Hell” to the Dachau concentration camp also separated him from his mother-a tragedy he would have in common with Judy when they met in the mid-1940s. Bernd managed to be released from the concentration camp, and later bribed German embassy officials to gain passage to Cuba. Unsatisfied with political asylum there, he made his way to the United States, where he enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to his native Germany to fight the Nazis.

Bernd and Judy were married in 1948 and have made Ventura County their home for several decades. The couple has two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“We were able to make a good life after all,” Judy said.

Judy said that appearing in front of an audience at Pepperdine was important to raise awareness to the Holocaust, and to future inhumanities.

“As difficult as it is for me to talk in front of people, I did it because I don’t want this to happen to other people,” she said. “I want the world to be able to speak up against injustice.”

It is that message that serves as inspiration for the Simon Hero Foundation, which was created in the couple’s honor. Through a sponsorship from Pepperdine’s Glazer Institute, the foundation has developed a new 3D educational program for use in schools, museums and universities all over the world.

The program, currently in the pilot stages, poses different ethical scenarios in a three-dimensional virtual world, from which students have to make the right choice. It uses the Simons’ story of survival and tolerance as an example for students.

“What they used to survive to have a good life should be taught to children,” said Lani Netter, the foundation’s director.

The computer software, Netter said, was jointly arranged into a classroom-ready, textbook curriculum by Pepperdine’s graduate school of education and psychology; it’s also ready to be tested in schools in Irvine, Calif., as well as in New Jersey and Arizona.

Netter says a biopic on the Simons is in the works, and she hopes that the curriculum will be recognized at the federal level in Washington, D.C.

Bernd Simon’s goal is much simpler. His advice to the Payson Library audience was to be proud of patriotism. Fly a flag outside your home, he said.

“Be tolerant of your fellow man,” he spoke. “Love your country. It’s free.”

The Glazer Institute is also sponsoring “Art Survives: Expressions from the Holocaust,” an exhibit currently on display at the Payson Library. Inspired by the documentary “As Seen Through These Eyes,” the film will be shown on campus on Feb. 1. For more information about The Simon Hero Foundation, visit www.thesimonherofoundation.org.