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Witnesses to History

Visitors contribute first-hand stories

Every week, students in David Fuchs' history class are bringing their parents and grandparents, something he agrees is not typical at most Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) classes.

But neither is his class.

For the third year, Fuchs is teaching World War II history and for the third year, he is bringing in airmen, marines, soldiers, military wives, prisoners of war and Holocaust survivors from Falcons Landing and the metropolitan area to NVCC's Loudoun campus. The guest speakers talk for an hour and answer student questions as Fuchs records their presentations to file in the college library.

"It's living history. It gives them a first-hand account during their grandparents' time," Fuchs said. "The students are able to see something that can never be duplicated."

"All these guest speakers he brings in and what they contribute make an unique and unforgettable learning experience," said Beverly Blois, dean of the Humanities Division at NVCC. "I always look forward to visiting the class once or twice. I can observe a master teacher in action."

At the March 27 class, Alexandria resident Charlene Schiff talked about living in a Jewish ghetto during World War II and becoming estranged from her childhood family. Since 1985, she has been traveling nationwide to tell her story and "to try to keep alive the statement 'for the children.'"

"I feel imprisoned by my memories and my past, but I must speak out for all those who couldn't," Schiff said to the class, which this year has 35 students.

SCHIFF GREW UP in Horochow, Poland, the daughter of a university professor and one of two survivors from the town, which had 5,000 Jews before the Holocaust.

In 1941 at the end of Hitler and Stalin's agreement, the Germans rounded up 300 Jewish leaders including Schiff's father. Schiff, her parents and her sister were given one hour to pack and were assigned to a place to live inside a gated ghetto and ordered to wear the star of David.

"The message was the same. We were a marked people," Schiff said.

Schiff was too young for a food portion but her mother and sister worked in a warehouse to earn theirs. At night, they slept on straw. In the day, they were beaten.

"Slowly and systematically, we were stripped of all human dignity," Schiff said. Jews died for "disease, starvation and sheer hopelessness."

Schiff's mother contacted two farmers who agreed to hide them and sent her older sister to live with one of them. She was never heard from again. Schiff and her mother attempted to reach the other farmer but had to hide in a river for days while their ghetto burned. Schiff kept dozing off and woke up to find that her mother was gone. She went to the farm alone, was sent away with an apple and bread and walked all night to the forest.

"I felt so utterly alone. I had to find my mother. What was I going to eat? Where was I going to sleep? Who would take care of me?" said Schiff, who never did find her mother. "I was on the run from forest to forest in search of my mother. My carefree childhood in a small town didn't prepare me for living in a dark forest. ... I cheated death which was always one step behind me."

IN 1944, SCHIFF was found in the forest when a Russian soldier stepped on her dying body. The soldiers took her with them and put her in a field hospital, where she recovered. She contacted her relatives in the United States by remembering her grandmother's address. The relatives answered for her grandmother, saying her grandmother had died and sent an affidavit for her to join the family. She moved to the United States in 1948.

"I do try to have the world not forget. We still have conflicts and genocide," Schiff said, mentioning the four evils of indifference, ignorance, injustice and intolerance. "We haven't learned that hate is devastating."

At the beginning of the class, Fuchs asked, "Why do nations go to war?" Fuchs does not emphasize dates, names, facts and the military aspects of the war, wanting his students to grasp the larger issues, such as why humans resort to settling disputes with violence, why wars occur and why they continue to occur. "Will we continue to fight in the 21st century? ... I don't have the answers. I raise questions for them to think about."

Fuchs typically gives a lecture, holds a class discussion and shows a video related to the lecture before or after the speaker presentation, the non-traditional aspect of the course. He includes exams, finals and papers, along with required reading and document research.

"It's a power cram course with lots to do," said Fuchs, who considers the course to be at the junior or senior level. The course is offered every spring, this year in a 12-week session for 3.5 hours a week, and is the only course of its type offered at the five NVCC campuses.

ELEVEN GUEST SPEAKERS are scheduled to speak for this year's course.

"What I like most about the course is it reaches out to people in the community to visit the campus and share their experiences," Fuchs said, adding that seven to eight speakers speak every year. He identifies the speakers through Falcons Landing, the Rust Library in Leesburg, the county's Department of Library Services and student contacts.

"It's a truly remarkable course for our students," Blois said. "First of all, David is a masterful teacher. Secondly, he brings all of the accumulated wisdom of a Ph.D. in history and third of someone who has visited most of the places he has described in his course ... battlefields, Holocaust sites, and of course he grew up during the war in the United States."

"It's a voluntary course. I hope some of them will become history teachers," Fuchs said, adding, "It's missionary work."

Fuchs and his wife of 42 years, Benita Fuchs, are both history teachers. Fuchs is an educator with 47 years experience, including five years as an adjunct instructor at NVCC.

"Growing up in war motivated us to become history teachers," Fuchs said about his growing up in Bronx, New York and Benita's early years in Cleveland, Ohio. "The was held such a fascination for us. It was a moment in our lives that shaped our lives."

The Fuchs moved to Sterling five years ago and have a daughter and three grandchildren in Vienna.