Northwood Academy students celebrate Holocaust Survivor's 90th birthday

Northwood Academy students celebrate Holocaust Survivor's 90th birthday
Updated: Oct. 27, 2017 at 6:00 PM EDT
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(Source: Live 5)
(Source: Live 5)

SUMMERVILLE, SC (WCSC) - Students at Northwood Academy in Summerville threw a 90th birthday party Friday for a Holocaust Survivor who lives in Charleston.

Joe Engel turned 90-years-old on October 9, but celebrated with his other family at Northwood Friday afternoon.

"This meant so much to me," Engel said. "I never expect things like this."

Engel was one of millions tortured and beaten at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Birkenau, Germany.

In 2000 Engel became friends with Northwood Academy history teacher Denise Deveaux, and that's how Northwood students came to know his name.

"I knew I had to have him come and speak at my school," Deveaux said.

Engel, a native of Poland, who now lives in Charleston, has shared his amazing story of survival at schools all across South Carolina.

Under Nazi rule in Germany, his parents and eight siblings were all split between forced labor camps and death camps.

In 1945, while only a teenager, Engel escaped after jumping from a train following a death march from Auschwitz to Czechoslovakia.

"One word that comes to my mind when I think of him is courage," said Colby Roy, the President of the Student Government Association. "That he has the courage to stand up in front of millions of people to speak on the things he had to endure."

Deveaux said Engel has spoken at Northwood every year since 2000, except for one year where he had surgery for a health issue.

"He's so strong and so willing to share the most horrific thing that a person can go through," Deveaux said. "He tells the kids his story so they will remember. Those are his famous words, please remember me."

Students wrote birthday cards, and sang "Happy Birthday" to the 90-year-old during the brief ceremony before school dismissed.

"I never thought she could have arranged something like this," Engel said. "I was very surprised and emotional about it."

"It's an incredible honor to be able to participate in this and know Joe," said Rachel Revelise, the Senior Class President. "The Holocaust survivors are few and far between these days, and just being able to know one so personally... it is an honor."

Engel has traveled back to Poland a few times, and also visited Auschwitz several years ago with Deveaux by his side.

"The most memorable thing in that trip was walking with him through the streets," Deveaux said. "I remember him getting very quiet and he looked at me and said I don't remember green trees. I don't remember green grass. I've never heard birds sing. It went to my heart, and I knew this was something I had to tell my students, because I had never heard of it. So I looked at him and promised him that day that as long as I had breath in my lungs that I would tell people about his story and what happened to the Jewish people in Europe."

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, it's estimated that at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945.

Overall, it's estimated 1.5 million children were killed during the Holocaust; a statistic many people have tried to show remembrance for.

At Friday's celebration, Engel was also surprised with the dedication of "The Daffodil Project" garden, which will be named in his honor.

The Daffodil Project aspires to build a worldwide living memorial in remembrance of the children who died in the Holocaust and in honor of those who survived.

"These children who perished in the Holocaust had such a short life, but they had such a bright future and they left such an impact on us," said Samantha Krantz, who helps with the project. "Children like him (Engel) who survived and made Charleston their home, they're also representative of the daffodil."

To date, there have been 393,000 daffodils planted in over 100 locations around the world.

Staff and students will plant the bulbs in two weeks, and the flowers are expected to bloom sometime in February.

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