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One of our great sorrows is that the 'Greatest Generation' is dying out.  A subset of that generation is the dwindling population of Holocaust survivors.  Some of those came to America to live quiet lives, get married, have children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Others followed Elie Wiesel's call to tell the story of the Jews and the Nazis over and over so that people would remember and, they hoped, would never allow an atrocity like that to happen again.  We lost a true hero August 30 when Fred Voss, 99, passed away in his Ithaca home.

I met Fred in 2006 when Lansing English teacher June Martin suggested I cover a talk he was giving at Lansing High School to talk about his experiences as a teenage Jew in Germany during the Holocaust.  He started with a little history of World War II, how it started and some of the highlights -- lowlights, really -- of the war.  But he soon began speaking of his own experience and what it was like to be a German Jewish teenager when the Nazis came into power when he was 12 years old.  He talked about coming home from his confirmation to find they could not have his confirmation party - the Nazis barred them from going into their own store, where they lived upstairs. Two years later he was beaten by fellow classmates in school because he was Jewish.

"I remember when one of our teachers, who dressed in a black SS uniform, told me one day that I should stand up in class so that the other students could see what a Jew really looked like," Fred said.

On Kristallnacht Fred's father was taken to Buchenwald, a notorious concentration camp. His mother signed away all the family's belongings to obtain his father's miraculous release.  He and his family returned home on the day of his Bar Mitzvah in 1933 to find the Nazis wouldn't allow them inside for a planned celebration. In 1935 he was beaten up by members of the Hitler Youth, his own classmates.  At 18 years old Fred eluded the Gestapo in a terrifying escape while visiting cousins who were taken away and never seen again.   Eventually his immediate family was able to leave Germany, but only by agreeing to give everything they owned to the Nazis.

Eventually making it to England, he met his wife Ilsa, with whom he shared 73 years of marriage.  Fred eventually made his way to the US.  He joined the US Army and returned to Europe for the liberation of Paris, and to translate and help provide relief for the homeless displaced people returning from concentration camps.  He began speaking of his experiences in his later life.  Fred told his story to hundreds of local teenagers to make sure that the next generation will not forget the horrors of the Holocaust, hoping that remembering will prevent it happening again.  That's how I met him.

I was very moved by Fred's story. My family came to America to escape Czar Nicholas' persecution of Jews, so we were already here when the Nazis began their reign of terror.  But you didn't have to have family there to be utterly horrified and repulsed by what the Nazis did. While I have met Holocaust survivors over the years, none was as outspoken and inspiring as Fred was.  Since that first Lansing High School talk we developed a warm acquaintanceship.  He made sure I knew when he was coming back to Lansing to speak, often sending me advanced copies of the speech he would be giving, or sharing newpaper stories he thought were important.

His example informed many of the things I have written in this column, and gave me a greater understanding of the consequences not only of the Holocaust, but of hate around the world in many contexts.  Several years ago I asked Fred how he felt about Germany and Germans today, and he surprised me with his answer.  By this time he had worked through and past his hatred of what they did to him and his family, and he spoke about learning not to hate, period.  I was surprised, because I am still pretty angry at them and my family wasn't even there.

I think one reason he connected so effectively with so many high school students is that he was a teenager himself when he was literally chased across Germany by the SS, singled out and beaten up in school, and eventually forced to leave his country.  Every time I heard him speak to teenagers I felt it was teenaged Fred who was telling the story, and that had to connect powerfully with the actual teenagers in the room.

Last year the law of unintended consequences attacked.  Fred had told me he had found a letter that he had written to his grandson 20 years previously, in 1998.  I asked him whether he would be willing for me to publish it. The next issue of the Lansing Star was coming out on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, known as the 'night of broken glass' because of all the shattered windows from 1,000 synagogues and more than 7,500 Jewish businesses that the Nazis destroyed.  I knew he was too feeble for public speaking by this time, but thought publishing the letter would be a way he could continue spreading his message.  He loved the idea.

But it soon led to panic as he suffered a computer glitch and was convinced the letter had been deleted.  He tried to rush to reconstruct it, and despite my assurances that there was no hurry and I would certainly publish it in a future issue any time he wanted, he suffered the panic and helplessness we all feel when our computers act up, no doubt magnified by age.  At his advanced age I feared for his well being - I could hear the stress in his voice on the phone and it was evident in his emails as he struggled to produce the letter.  Thankfully his son-in-law Bruce Lewenstein stepped in, recovered and edited the letter, and got it to me in plenty of time for the Kristallnacht anniversary issue.

With evident relief Fred emailed, "Just want you to know that we did not let you down. I found a copy of the letter on my computer, which was a surprise for me. Then today Sunday, as I told you, our son-in-law, Bruce Lewenstein came ,and rescued the project for me.  Let me know please, if you liked it, and if it will be in your newspapers this Friday."

I liked it very much and happily assured him it was in plenty of time to make it into the issue.

The letter started, "Last week you asked me a question. Your question was: How do I think the Holocaust will be remembered by future generations, after we survivors – like your grandmother and I – are no longer on this earth, and our eyewitness stories, especially the one about Kristallnacht, can no longer be heard."

That day came a week ago when at 99 Fred succumbed to old age.  The answer to that question was part of Bruce's eulogy at Saturday's funeral when he recounted how Fred had been recognized by one in a store, saying, "Aren't you the guy who came to our school and taught us about the Holocaust?"

The students I have spoken to have all remembered Fred's visit to their school, and the message he brought about the horror of the Holocaust and his evangelizing against hate.  They remembered his story, and he made a strong impression that they will likely never forget.  My own kids were lucky enough to hear him speak.

My worry is that the story will change and lose its power as generations pass it down.  Did you ever play 'Telephone' as a kid? The game where one kid whispers a message to another kid and that kid whispers it to the next kid, and the story goes around the circle until the last kid speaks the message aloud.  Then the first kid tells the others what the original message was, and it is never, never the same!  That's fun in the game, but would be tragic for a story like Fred's.

I am hoping that they will remember that in 2011 Fred told his story in 'Miracles, Milestones, and Memories', which is available on Amazon. And that they'll tell their children and grandchildren to read it so they can experience the story directly from the person who lived it.  It is a remarkable story, well worth reading.

It was a privilege to know Fred.  On top of being one of the most inspiring people I ever knew, he was warm, devoted to Ilsa and their family, and had a wonderful sense of humor.  He had a serious message, but he wasn't a proselytizer -- he was a real human being.  He had a way of touching people that was special.  He was outgoing and touched literally thousands of teenagers and adults alike.  There is a big hole in our world with Fred Voss gone from it.

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