Makaylah Lucas burned paper to make it look aged, tied those pages together between pieces of cardboard and began writing a journal from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor.
The eighth-grader from Whiteland was writing about a Jewish teenager in Poland for an English class research project. The woman survived the Holocaust, but her parents and siblings died. Lucas remembered the Jewish girl’s story, which began when she was 13 and war broke out in Poland. Six years later, she was released from a prison camp.
“I learned that you should enjoy what we have. She didn’t have her parents to take care of her,” Lucas said. “She stayed strong and believed that things would get better, and they did.”
Earlier this month, Lucas, 13, walked through an exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum during her eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. Outside the exhibit, a small elderly lady sat at a table with a sign identifying her as a Holocaust survivor.
The woman spoke with an accent and told stories, answered questions and showed visitors a number tattoo she got at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.
The woman sparked Lucas’ interest because she was a survivor, but then she saw the name on the stack of biographies sitting on the table.
“I was shocked. I didn’t believe it,” Lucas said.
The woman was Regina Spiegel, and Lucas had written some of her story on those burned diary pages.
“It was just so cool. I was freaking out,” she said.
Lucas told Spiegel about the diary she had made for her honors English project at Clark-Pleasant Middle School, and Spiegel signed a small flier version of her Holocaust story and gave it to the girl.
Lucas had picked Spiegel from a list of Holocaust survivors her English teacher had given her and researched Spiegel’s story in an online biography database. She chose to write about Spiegel because she thought her story was unique. Spiegel’s parents bribed guards to sneak their daughter out of a ghetto for Jews where the family was living in one room and starving, she said.
“I thought she was really different,” Lucas said.
Lucas’ experience made the entire trip worthwhile, said Randy Phipps, the Clark-Pleasant social studies teacher who organized the trip and chaperoned the 43 students who went.
“That’s one of the reasons you take trips like that in the first place,” he said. “The Holocaust Museum is a very powerful experience for anyone who goes there, but to be able to have more of a connection with it makes it more long-lasting and life-impacting.”
Spiegel lives in Columbia, Md., and volunteers once a week at the museum. The Clark-Pleasant group just happened to tour on a Wednesday, the day the 87-year-old volunteers.
Spiegel was 13 — Lucas’ age — when war broke out in Poland. She was nearly 19 when she was released from a prison camp. She now likes to share her story, particularly with children, because she believes children will remember the Holocaust and improve the future.
“I feel like the kids will be here for us,” Spiegel said. “I always tell them, ‘You can always be our witnesses.’”
Even with all the children and teens she sees in her days volunteering at the museum, she remembered Lucas, she said.
“You can see right away certain kids, the way they look at you. The way they want you to tell them,” Spiegel said. “They want to swallow everything.”
Spiegel tells children to be kind and not to ignore problems they encounter such as bullying, she said.
Kindnesses such as a gift of an apple or a piece of bread from other workers in work camps gave her hope while she was a prisoner, she said.
“When somebody showed a little bit of kindness or whatever, they couldn’t save us, but if they showed us some kindness, that was a big help,” Spiegel said. “Maybe the whole world didn’t go crazy.”