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SOUTH GLENS FALLS — An auditorium full of rambunctious Oliver Winch Middle School Students fell silent as Ruth Mendel began to speak Wednesday morning.

Mendel, born in Luxembourg to a Jewish family, was very lucky to avoid a tragic fate in the early 1940s as she and her family fled the country shortly after it was invaded by Nazi forces.

Mendel now lives in Delmar, New York, and took the opportunity to speak to the auditorium of mostly eighth-grade students because she said it was important to pass on her story to others.

“I’m so happy to be here because the first thing I saw when I got here was a big poster that says, ‘No Hate,’” Mendel said. “I adore speaking to young people like you because it gives me hope for the future. We can’t live with hate in our hearts.”

Mendel told the students all about her journey from Luxembourg to the U.S., a journey that took nearly a year from start to finish.

Mendel was only nine years old when German forces seized Luxembourg City, forcing her and her family to flee. Her grandmother arranged for visas for her and her family to travel to Portugal, and they loaded into the first of two transport trains headed west.

She said she later learned the second transport never actually began the journey and was redirected to a concentration camp somewhere in Nazi territory.

Her family was able to make it to Portugal, where they waited for more than nine months before being cleared to enter the U.S. because of the strict immigration quotas in place at that time.

She said because of her age, she was insulated from a great deal of the tension her parents and grandparents felt about the danger they were in. But even as she able to occasionally have fun and made friends during the journey, she felt a vague threat and knew that they would not be returning home.

Along the way, she encountered several strangers she still remembers vividly because of their kindness and willingness sometimes just to speak to her and treat her family as equals. She said the lessons in kindness she learned from those strangers is what she hopes to pass along to students today.

“Words are important. The words that come out of your mouth affect the people you are speaking to,” Mendel said. “Words lead to actions.”

Mendel closed with a question and answer session and left with a warning to the students in attendance. She said anytime she hears disparaging words on the news or sees stories of discrimination, she is reminded of her journey.

“It’s very reminiscent of the things that were in my childhood,” Mendel said. “Freedom, opportunity for everyone; those are the things we have to protect.”

Some students stuck around to hear more after she was finished and were given the opportunity to see some of her books and photos from her childhood.

Several of the students were from the school’s No Place for Hate Club, a group that was formed to combat bullying and discrimination against other students.

Seventh grader Kierra Skaarub said she appreciated Mendel was able to take her story and use it in a way to tell young people about what she went through and how to prevent it from happening again. She and others said the stories of the strangers who helped her along the way were also important because they showed it’s always possible to help others.

“I thought it meant a lot to everybody and everybody took something away from it,” fellow seventh grader Zachary Harrington said. “I think it’s that there’s never enough kindness. You can always do better and make people happier.”

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Samuel Northrop is the education reporter for The Post-Star. He can be reached at snorthrop@poststar.com.

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