Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride addresses students at Dacula Middle School on Tuesday. A Holocaust survivor, Gilbride spoke to two sessions of students. (Photo: Chris Stephens)
DACULA — Eighth-graders from Dacula Middle School took a break from the norm on Tuesday and learned more in one hour than any history book could have taught them.
Bozenna Urbanowicz Gilbride grew up in Poland as a Roman Catholic and experienced the Holocaust firsthand. Her story captivated students during two separate sessions as she described her experiences of gunfire, sickness and loss of family.
“The Nazis came from one side and the Communists came from the other side,” she said. “In 1943, we were occupied by the Germans, but there was a group of Ukraines (UPAs), who were killing Jews and Poles.”
Eventually Gilbride, who was 9 at the time, was forced onto a train by Germans and transported to Germany where they were to do slave labor.
“The trains stopped on the tracks often, but the doors never opened,” she said. “That went on for two-and-a-half days. Eventually, we got out.”
After a bout with tuberculosis that saw caused her to be separated from her family for more than two months, Gilbride found herself back at the ammunition factory where the men labored during the day and the women labored at night.
It was during that time when her mother was taken away put into a concentration camp in Germany. For years, Gilbride never knew what happened to her mother.
“It was amazing to hear how much she had to go through, all the pain and suffering,” said Adelina Lupu. “You could tell how much her experiences affected her.”
As World War II was winding down, the Germans released the prisoners and told them to walk until they got to the American lines. If they turned back, they would be shot.
Gilbride and her family, sans her mother, were eventually given a choice to stay in Germany or go back to Poland.
“My father didn’t want to stay in Germany because he was afraid of the Germans,” Gilbride said. “And he didn’t want to go back to Poland because it was occupied by the Communists.”
So, her father was able to get family in New York to sponsor them and the family moved to the U.S. in 1947, still without hearing what happened to her mother.
Then, there was hope. Her mother was found to be still be alive in Poland and the family began correspondence with her. After years of waiting and a jail stint by her mother for trying to escape, the day finally came in 1957 when Gilbride would see her mother for the first time in more than a decade.
“When I saw her, she called me by my name, but that wasn’t my mother,” she said. “My mother was very pretty and a healthy woman the last I remembered. Here she was this 93-pound woman.”
Gilbride’s mother spent the next 22 years with the family, dying in her sleep in 1979.
After Gilbride spoke, she opened the floor to questions. She was asked many, including if she still had letters from her mother and how the Holocaust changed her as a person.
“Their jaws just dropped to the floor after hearing her story,” said Assistant Principal Jennifer Lawrence. “This was a unique experience for them. In my 15 years in education, we have never been able to get a Holocaust survivor to come speak to students. The Holocaust has a lot more to it than what is sometimes taught.”
Maribel Alvarado echoed those sentiments.
“I learned more about the Holocaust in one hour than I have ever learned,” she said. “I understand more about the Holocaust. It’s not something we’re taught a lot about.”
Gilbride said the main reason she speaks to students is because they need to be able to recognize hate.
“I want you to see what the beginning of hate looks like so you can stop it,” she said. “I thought it would stop after the Holocaust. But we still see it going on in the world today.”