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Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center

Students surround Werner Reich after one of his presentations at Smithtown High School West in 2017. Photo by Christina Cone

By Leah Chiappino

Holocaust survivor and Smithtown resident Werner Reich first began speaking about his life experiences at Smithtown High School nearly 25 years ago. He saw an article in the newspaper announcing the school would begin to offer a Holocaust Studies elective. Newly retired from his career as an industrial engineer, Reich offered to speak to the class.

After giving his testimony for about 20 minutes, he allowed students to ask questions. He recalls students asking if there was an exercise room in Auschwitz, if the camp had kosher food and what type of weekend activities were conducted. “I realized that they didn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust,” he said. “They were mixing up the concentration camps with a summer camp.”

Compelled to educate the students, Reich prepared a presentation to accompany his story. He expanded to several schools throughout the Island, but realized he could not tell both his story and the history of the Holocaust fully in a single period. He increased the time to two-period assemblies and uses about 350 slides filled with history, old photos and diagrams that help to tell his story. “I try to emulate television because that is what kids are used to,” he said.

“My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

– Werner Reich

Reich recognizes that even with sharing his experience so intimately, unless someone lived through the Holocaust, it will be very difficult to fully understand. “Even I, who have lived through that garbage, have a very difficult time understanding the full Holocaust,” he said. “It speaks against all of our natural instincts and all of the basic ethics we have been taught. It’s difficult in this world of peace for you to understand, for instance, on the death march I didn’t eat for seven days.”

Instead, Reich uses his platform to stress the importance of standing up for what is right and against bullying. “I never want to walk away from a presentation thinking ‘Now they know how much I suffered,’” he said. “That is unimportant. My suffering is an illustration of what happened, but I want them to learn that being a bystander is a terrible thing.”  

More recently, Reich has expanded his presentation globally. He has spoken at a Jewish community center in Hong Kong about eight times and has given several presentations in Germany, Macau, Portugal and Israel, as well as various locations throughout the United States.

Reich is also a docent at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove and has been honored for his activism by the New York State Assembly and Suffolk County Legislature. He is still active at Temple Beth David in Commack, and in his free time practices magic, a hobby that was first taught to him while he was in Auschwitz by a bunk mate. That story was told in the 2014 novel, “The Magician of Auschwitz” by Kathy Kacer.

Christina Cone, a social studies teacher at Smithtown High School West says the impact he has had on her students has been nothing short of powerful. “To me, he is the Energizer Bunny as his energy and passion for teaching others does not tire,” she said. “Each year, my students share how much they appreciate hearing his message. They admit that it’s a heavy presentation but they seem to genuinely internalize his words. He is encouraging and inspirational and has, and continues to make this world a better place through his actions. I admire him immensely.”

Reich’s words have had a particularly special impact on former Smithtown High School West student Helen Turner. Having been so inspired by his presentation, she studied the Holocaust in college and is now the director of education at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove. “When I first met Werner … I was so taken aback by this incredible man, “ she said. “He was funny, witty and strong and yet had been through so much. At the time, I was researching the genocide in Darfur for school and I was so enraged and upset at Werner’s experience and horrified that it had happened and was continuing to happen to other people all over the world that I really felt I wanted to do something about it. While my meeting him was maybe an hour of my life, it’s something I will never forget. He’s an incredible man. I’m lucky to know him.”