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German-American Day opens foray to Carroll County

Wednesday - 10/17/2012, 12:50pm  ET

RACHEL ROUBEIN
The Carroll County Times

WESTMINSTER, Md. - At 9 a.m., the wooden pews of McDaniel College's Big Baker Chapel were quickly filling, as middle school and high school students streamed into the building.

There were about 1,200 of them from 30 different schools across Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

"How many came last year?" Mohamed Esa asked the crowd Tuesday. At least half the hands shot straight up, indicating this wasn't their first time attending the college's annual German-American Day's festivities.

"This is No. 18," Esa said, as he silenced the chitter-chatter of teen and preteen students. "I hope we have 18 more."

More than 18 years ago, the Maryland American Association of Teachers of German met. There was a consensus, then-president Esa said.

"We had a need to do something to build bridges between middle schools and high schools," said Esa, a German professor at McDaniel College, "so the kids who are taking German don't feel they're by themselves."

So in 1995, about 200 students from about six schools convened for the inaugural German-American Day on McDaniel College's campus. This year's amount increased by 1,000, according to Esa, who organized the events.

Some were rookie German students. Others had been taking the language for several years. It didn't quite matter because the day's activities were geared toward celebrating German cultural with a variety of workshops _ such as Christmas in Germany; Make Your Own Marzipan; German Anti-Hitler Resistance; and German Rock, Pop and Hip-Hop Music _ and of course, German food and music.

This coincided just a little more than a week after the United States' official German-American day, which is Oct. 6.

"Many German traditions are so ingrained in our nation's story that many people are unaware of their origins," President Barack Obama said in a statement about German-American Day, "but the indelible mark they have left on the character of our country is unmistakable."

At 9:40 a.m., Esa released the students to attend the workshop they'd chosen so they could explore these such roots.

"Okay, first step: right toe to right toe, left toe to left toe," said Maria Skowronek, president of the German heritage group Verein Deutscher Trachten, who was instructing the students in German folk dance.

"Do you know what's coming next? The music," said Richard Skowronek, another instructor who was standing in the middle of a circle comprised of paired off students.

It started, and the students touched right toe to right toe, left toe to left toe. The German music became steadily faster and faster, so the students danced the moves quicker and quicker. The song ended, and laughter ensued.

"All right, new dance," said Maria Skowronek, who was wearing a traditional German blue dress, red apron over it, and a white collared shirt underneath.

This dance was harder than the last, said Haley Miller, a first-year German student from South River High School in Edgewater. She had to twirl into Jeremy Hughes, and he had to duck underneath _ which one student said looked like a pretzel.

Hughes, a third-year German student from Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, tossed his grey felt hat in celebration after the pair finished the dance. It was his second year attending German-American Day and he enjoyed the German Folk Dance workshop because it was interactive.

Others passed on the hands-on learning in place of an opportunity they said they might never have again: listening to a Holocaust survivor speak of his experiences first hand.

It's a part of history, said Katie Chaney, from North Hagerstown High School.

"There's not many Holocaust survivors left anymore," she said, "and it's good to listen to him speak."

And out poured 86-year-old Rubin Sztajer's story.

"The best way for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing," he said.

"What is 6 million?" he asked. "If I were to take every man, woman or child in Maryland, we wouldn't have made up 6 million."

That's the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust. During World War II, from 1939 to 1945, the Nazis tried to ethnically cleanse parts of Europe under dictator Adolf Hitler's regime. In total, 11 million were persecuted, including gypsies, gays, physically and mentally disabled and more.

"What I'm speaking about is people," he said. "People just like you and I. Men, women and children. I know. I was with them. And I buried many of them."

As a 16-year-old, the Poland native was literally taken out of his mother's arms and into the Nazis' hands.

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