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Revere: Diploma at last for Holocaust survivor



Nearly nine decades into a life full of trial and perseverance, Gerd Strauss enjoyed a milestone Wednesday that most reach at an age of innocence.

He received a high school diploma.

It came 70 years and more than 5,000 miles from the time and place it would have, if this planet had been spared the vile legacy of Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power in the 1930s spelled the end of formal education for Strauss.

Instead of a high school degree, he was given a number and a Jewish star for the uniform he wore in the Buchenwald death camp in Weimar, Germany.

Eight and a half months in the concentration camp ended when a relative in Palestine secured a place for him in art school, which Strauss left to take up arms against the Nazis who murdered millions of his people, including his parents.

For his recent efforts to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, the 88-year-old Tucsonan now holds an honorary degree from Tucson High Magnet School.

“This is wonderful,” Strauss said in a near whisper as he accepted the degree from Principal Abel Morado.

The degree was conferred in a small ceremony in Morado’s office, with members of the local Jewish community joining the student and the counselor who made it happen.

Adam Zeldin, a 16-year-old junior at Tucson High, asked counselor Bonnie Kneller to help him secure a degree for Strauss after hearing him speak at the school in April.

“One of the things that stuck with me was him saying that he wasn’t able to graduate high school,” said Zeldin. “You wouldn’t even think about that in this country.”

Missing out on his diploma was a surprise to Strauss, whose education in his hometown of Giessen, Germany, ended four years shy of graduation.

“Hitler came to power in 1933 and in 1934 the ruler of the state of Hessen on his own decided that no Jews could go any longer to high schools, to colleges or universities,” Strauss said.

His parents provided tutors for two years, but authorities put a stop to that informal education as well.

“In 1938, I went to the concentration camp Buchenwald. The reason I was arrested, I cannot tell you even today because they didn’t tell you why you are incarcerated,” he said. “You have no chance to defend yourself, or find out why you were put in.”

In the camp, Strauss witnessed the beginning of atrocities that would later shock the world.

“The death rate in the camp was fairly high,” he said. “We had at least three or four dead people every week in that barrack, which contained about 250 prisoners.”

Being accepted to a foreign school was one of the few ways out of Buchenwald at the time, and Strauss left Germany for Palestine the day before Hitler’s army took over Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

After two years in art school, Strauss decided to join the fight against Hitler.

“I joined the British army and was also in the Jewish underground, the Haganah,” he said.

He fought in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, where he took a sniper’s bullet in the knee.

“The British did not release you from the army if you got wounded. They needed everybody,” he said.

Strauss returned to Palestine after serving in the army and soon was working against the British “because of a difference of opinion, shall we say, where the occupation of Palestine was concerned.”

Then he was recruited for Britain’s MI6, the secret intelligence service made famous by Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, and was dispatched to the Sudan to ply military secrets from a young officer in Rommel’s Afrika Korps who had been captured by the Allies.

“He did not divulge anything he knew, so the British decided to take him to a climate that was as hot as possible,” he recalled “He caught all kinds of diseases and he decided to divulge his secrets if he was transported to a more moderate climate, preferably in England.”

After the war ended Strauss married his childhood sweetheart, then moved to the United States and to Tucson in 1986.

About 600 Tucson High students heard Strauss’ story in April, part of an effort by the Jewish community to educate students on the Holocaust.

“It got a buzz going on campus,” said Kneller. “It was connected with a candlelight vigil that night for Darfur. We were talking about what happened in history and how it’s still happening.”

Zeldin said he’s glad his fellow students have been exposed to the Holocaust’s history.

“I’ve seen a lot of Holocaust presentations through the Jewish community,” he said. “Having it be through school really expands the opportunity for a lot of other people.”

It’s important for all people to understand what happened, Strauss said.

“If you don’t look at history the right way, we all forget that history tends to repeat itself,” said Strauss. “Once we are gone, the revisionists are going to get after it. They are already working on it.”

We’d be wise to heed the cautionary tales of those who know the horror of which mankind is capable. But from genocide unchecked in the Sudan to secret arrests of terror suspects by our government, it seems we continue to have a hard time learning history’s lessons.

C.T. Revere can be reached at 573-4594 and at ctrevere@tucsoncitizen.com. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. His columns run Mondays and Thursdays.

Holocaust survivor Gerd Strauss, 88, is congratulated by Tucson High student Adam Zeldin after Strauss received an honorary diploma from the school Wednesday morning.

Holocaust survivor Gerd Strauss, 88, is congratulated by Tucson High student Adam Zeldin after Strauss received an honorary diploma from the school Wednesday morning.

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