The Carol County Times
WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — At 9 a.m., the wooden pews of McDaniel College’s Big Baker Chapel were quickly filling, as middle school and high school students streamed into the building.
There were about 1,200 of them from 30 different schools across Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
“How many came last year?” Mohamed Esa asked the crowd Tuesday. At least half the hands shot straight up, indicating this wasn’t their first time attending the college’s annual German-American Day’s festivities.
“This is No. 18,” Esa said, as he silenced the chitter-chatter of teen and preteen students. “I hope we have 18 more.”
More than 18 years ago, the Maryland American Association of Teachers of German met. There was a consensus, then-president Esa said.
“We had a need to do something to build bridges between middle schools and high schools,” said Esa, a German professor at McDaniel College, “so the kids who are taking German don’t feel they’re by themselves.”
So in 1995, about 200 students from about six schools convened for the inaugural German-American Day on McDaniel College’s campus. This year’s amount increased by 1,000, according to Esa, who organized the events.
Some were rookie German students. Others had been taking the language for several years. It didn’t quite matter because the day’s activities were geared toward celebrating German cultural with a variety of workshops — such as Christmas in Germany; Make Your Own Marzipan; German Anti-Hitler Resistance; and German Rock, Pop and Hip-Hop Music — and of course, German food and music.
This coincided just a little more than a week after the United States’ official German-American day, which is Oct. 6.
“Many German traditions are so ingrained in our nation’s story that many people are unaware of their origins,” President Barack Obama said in a statement about German-American Day, “but the indelible mark they have left on the character of our country is unmistakable.”
At 9:40 a.m., Esa released the students to attend the workshop they’d chosen so they could explore these such roots.
“Okay, first step: right toe to right toe, left toe to left toe,” said Maria Skowronek, president of the German heritage group Verein Deutscher Trachten, who was instructing the students in German folk dance.
“Do you know what’s coming next? The music,” said Richard Skowronek, another instructor who was standing in the middle of a circle comprised of paired off students.
It started, and the students touched right toe to right toe, left toe to left toe. The German music became steadily faster and faster, so the students danced the moves quicker and quicker. The song ended, and laughter ensued.
“All right, new dance,” said Maria Skowronek, who was wearing a traditional German blue dress, red apron over it, and a white collared shirt underneath.
This dance was harder than the last, said Haley Miller, a first-year German student from South River High School in Edgewater. She had to twirl into Jeremy Hughes, and he had to duck underneath — which one student said looked like a pretzel.
Hughes, a third-year German student from Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, tossed his grey felt hat in celebration after the pair finished the dance. It was his second year attending German-American Day and he enjoyed the German Folk Dance workshop because it was interactive.
Others passed on the hands-on learning in place of an opportunity they said they might never have again: listening to a Holocaust survivor speak of his experiences first hand.
It’s a part of history, said Katie Chaney, from North Hagerstown High School.
“There’s not many Holocaust survivors left anymore,” she said, “and it’s good to listen to him speak.”
And out poured 86-year-old Rubin Sztajer’s story.
“The best way for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing,” he said. “What is 6 million?” he asked. “If I were to take every man, woman or child in Maryland, we wouldn’t have made up 6 million.”
That’s the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. During World War II, from 1939 to 1945, the Nazis tried to ethnically cleanse parts of Europe under dictator Adolf Hitler’s regime. In total, 11 million were persecuted, including gypsies, gays, physically and mentally disabled and more.
“What I’m speaking about is people,” he said. “People just like you and I. Men, women and children. I know. I was with them. And I buried many of them.”
As a 16-year-old, the Poland native was literally taken out of his mother’s arms and into the Nazis’ hands.
“They took my family from me. They took my freedom. They took my clothes,” he said. “They even took my name, and they gave me a number.”
The students listened intently as he told of the horrors he saw. They listened as he spoke of working hours on end in the snow, sleet or 90-degree heat with only a tiny cup of soup to barely sustain him every 24 hours. The concentration camp called Bergen-Belson in Northwest Germany, he said, was littered with dead bodies.
When the war ended, he was alive, albeit barely. But gradually, he regained his strength, moved to America and made a life for himself. At the end of the lecture, he had a message for the students.
“I try to encourage them,” he said. “Appreciate what you have. And don’t ever give up.”
After the workshops, it was time for a German lunch. The more than one thousand students lined up to get their bratwurst, sauerbraten, potato pancakes, sauerkraut, German potato salad and more.
Becky Watson, of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, stood in line, holding the tree, snowflake, ornament and more she made in the Scherenschnitte: The Art of Paper Cutting Silhouettes workshop.
She lived in Germany when she was 3 to 5 years old and spoke the language fluently. She’s now trying to regain those skills during the school day, after an attempt to take a Saturday morning German class when she was younger flopped.
After the foray into German food ended, it was concert time.
“Posters signed by the band are $2. Go ahead and fill in all of the seats. It will be cozy; love your neighbor,” Mariah Ligas, a freshman German major at McDaniel College, yelled to the students filing back into the Big Baker Memorial Chapel for the concert.
As the German pop-rock band Artig took the stage, students took out their cell phones to record and photograph the moment to have a permanent snapshot of time from their day of German culture.
“(My students) say it’s the best day of the year for them,” said Marie Field, a German, Latin, French and Spanish teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
Information from: Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., http://www.carrollcounty.com/
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)