BUFORD - Two days before the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a Colorado middle school teacher and founder of the Holocaust Shoe Project visited Jones Middle School to share the story of his father's survival of the Nazis' systemic killing of millions of European Jews.
Alan "Woody" Morawiec, who has collected nearly 28,000 pairs of shoes since he started the campaign to bring awareness about the Holocaust and to provide a lesson to turn human cruelty into redemptive acts of loving kindness, used images of piles of shoes to help the seventh-graders visualize the extent of the genocide.
"It's not an easy thing seeing these images you've seen today. It's very hard," Morawiec told the students. "We need to see them to understand - to remember - so we don't do anything like this ever again."
Morawiec said he tells his father's story because there are very few people doing so.
"My father's story and the story of others like him need to stay alive beyond (their) passing," he said. "I am my father's voice and the voice of all those who can't speak."
Morawiec's father, Chaim Baruch Murawiec, (the last name would later be changed to Morawiec) was born in 1920 in Parczew, Poland. In 1933, his father's family moved to Kobryn, Poland, which is now in Belarus. Murawiec, whose name means "blessed life," is one of two known Jewish survivors from Kobryn.
Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, but the Russians, then a German ally, occupied Morawiec's father's town until 1941, when Germany invaded Russia. During the Nazi occupation, Jewish residents were sent to Ghetto A or Ghetto B. Murawiec was sent to Ghetto B and later to a forced labor camp.
One day at the labor camp, a Ukrainian guard approached Murawiec and told him if he stayed at the camp, he would die. But, the guard said, he would turn his back that night, giving Murawiec and two of his friends the chance to escape.
The trio escaped, and for four weeks, they walked in the forest at night, because the danger of getting caught was greater during the day. Murawiec hoped to reunite with his father, Morawiec said.
One day, Murawiec approached a barn on the outskirts of Kobryn and climbed into the hayloft to get some rest. Instead, he hid in fear, because he heard gunfire and dogs barking periodically throughout the day.
Murawiec later learned the Nazis had liquidated a ghetto. He had heard the executions. Later, as he stood on the mass grave site, Murawiec had a feeling his father had died there.
During a trip to Kobryn, Morawiec said he visited a museum that sold a book with a partial list of the people in the mass grave. He said the list contains his grandfather's name.
"My father's gut feeling that he was standing on the final resting place of his father was correct," Morawiec said.
After hiding in the hay barn, Murawiec and his friends traveled to the ghetto to see if there were any survivors. He found a coat, which was dirty and way too big for him, but he put it on, because winters in Eastern Europe are cold.
Murawiec and his friends then heard the footsteps of soldiers. They found a ladder, climbed to the second story of a building and pulled up the ladder to hide - but it was too late. The soldiers had seen them.
The three jumped through a hole to the first floor and ran in different directions. Murawiec ran to the back door, where he was grabbed by a soldier.
Morawiec paused to ask students to recall the meaning of his father's name: "blessed life."
"The same day my father found the coat was the same day that the coat saved his life," Morawiec said, noting that his father slipped out of the oversized coat and escaped. "Was it coincidence? Was it something more? I don't know. That's for you to decide."
Murawiec then joined with a partisan group, or guerrilla forces operating in enemy-occupied territory. The partisans sent him on several deadly missions, but Murawiec returned unscathed each time.
Murawiec came to the United States in 1950, becoming a citizen on May 22, 1956. The 88-year-old now lives in New York.
Morawiec said he thought his family name changed from "Murawiec" to "Morawiec" when his father came to the United States. One day, after entering his father's name in an Internet search engine, he came across a Web site that showed a Displaced Persons card, dated Aug. 20, 1945, containing the "Morawiec" spelling.
The Holocaust Shoe Project founder ended his presentation by urging students to take a stand against bullying and hatred.
"I strongly believe there are more good people in the world than evil people," Morawiec said. "I strongly believe love is all around us."
For more information about the Holocaust Shoe Project, visit www.holocaustshoeproject.org.