Jefferson Award Winners Survived Nazi Death CampBy Sharon Chin

BENICIA (KPIX 5) Two Vallejo sisters, in their nineties, share their firsthand memories of a dark chapter in world history so that the next generation may know the truth of the past.

Ninety-two-year-old Debbie Sessler and 90-year-old Beppy Leaver share how they survived the Holocaust. They’ve recounted their story many times in the last 30 years, and accept no payment in return.

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Most of the time, their audiences have been middle school students in Solano, Napa, and Contra Costa Counties.

“They told you you’d take a shower and you figure you’d go take a shower, but gas came out. You were killed,” Sessler said, as she recently described life in the concentration camps to a crowd of Benicia Middle School students, teachers and families.

She said there is one important message they want audiences to know from their Holocaust experience.

“This all was done to us because the Germans hated us. They hated the Jewish people. So this is what hatred can do,” Sessler explained.

“Before long, nobody will be alive no more,” Leaver added. “We still can talk about things to the kids.”

Born in Amsterdam, the sisters told students they were 16 and 14 years old when they were taken from their orphanage in 1943 during World War Two.

They spent two years in concentration camps. They volunteered at a marmalade factory so they could scrape carrots for food. Their duties included dumping human waste, sweeping ashes of the dead, and folding clothes.

“We didn’t know where all those clothes came from,” said Sessler. “Those were the clothes where the people had been gassed and burned.”

The images from decades ago remain seared in their memories.

“Many days in some of the camp lots of people were hanged,” said Leaver.

They recalled a singer who was unknowingly building his own gallows.

“So while he was singing, that opera singer, they hung him,” said Sessler.

During their hour-long presentations to schools and community groups, the sisters roll up their sleeves and display the tattoos they were given at the infamous Auschwitz camp.

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“You never had a name. You had a number on your arm,” Sessler stated. “It’s A13919. Beppy was A13918. Beppy stood in front of me.”

The pair ended up in the hospital barracks, escaping a final death march from Auschwitz.

“The Germans left, the Nazis all left, they took the healthy people with them,” Sessler said.

But the two women were spared because they were sick.

“We were liberated by the Russians. Boy were we happy to see them!” exclaimed Sessler.

In later years, both women married. Leaver married her boss, a tavern owner, and lived in England. Sessler came to California, and became a wife and mother of three children.

Today, as widows sharing a home in Vallejo, the sisters describe wartime details they never even told their husbands so that students like 11th grader Naomi Kenney can learn a lesson they’ll never forget.

“If you have hatred for somebody, just let it go. It’s not worth it,” said Kenney.

Benicia Middle School teacher Carolyn Fields has invited the two women as guest speakers for her students often in the last 15 years. Fields said you cannot help but be inspired by Sessler and Leaver’s zest for life, as the two weave their stories of horror with sibling humor:

As Sessler is describing life after the war, Leaver interjected, “Excuse me. Do you love your sister?”

“No,” the older sister responded, before both women and the audience laugh out loud.

“The fact that they’ve been through something so harrowing but still find joy in everything. You can’t be near them without picking up on their optimism,” said Fields.

The women said a DVD of their story, recorded by Director Steven Spielberg’s company, is archived in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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So for sharing life lessons from the Holocaust, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Beppy Leaver and Debbie Sessler.