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80 painful years later, Holocaust survivor bears witness to Arizona high school students

In 2021, Arizona passed a new law that mandates Holocaust education and other genocides be taught at least once for middle and high school students. As the last generation of survivors dwindles, some are visiting classrooms to pass down their stories first-hand. But they’re difficult stories to hear and tell. 

At the center of Ashley Crose’s AP History classroom at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale is a picture of Elie Wiesel — a Holocaust survivor, author, professor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Under it, is a quote from Wiesel that reads:

“When you listen to a witness, you become a witness."

Today, that witness is Rise Stillman, a 94-year-old resident of Scottsdale.

“I said what’s a crematorium? I’ve never heard of a crematorium. She said that’s where your family is being burned.”

Stillman, a Czechoslovakian-born Jew, is recounting painful eight-decades old memories, some she’s never told before from her time at Auschwitz.

“I had a hard time, I couldn’t believe that would be possible. And I just didn’t believe it,” she said.

It turned out to be true.

“I had a younger brother and a younger sister and of course, my mother and my father, they perished in Auschwitz. Plus, many aunts and uncles and cousins,” Stillman said.

Then just 14, she tells the students of the unspeakable horrors she experienced at the Nazi death camp, including encounters with an infamous physician, Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as "Doctor of Death" for conducting medical experiments on prisoners.

“He always came and selected people who were either sick or too weak to even stand. And those people were taken away and never seen after,” Stillman said.

She also recounted coming seconds away from being gunned down in a Nazi firing squad at the end of the war.

“We were taken to a field that was nearby and lined up and there were machines lined up.”

Stillman was liberated in May of 1945 and eventually made her way to Ohio and later Arizona.

The 27 students in the class, all around Rise’s age at the time, sit in stunned silence, horrified yet enraptured.

It seemed unreal to some.

“It’s crazy to think that people can be that immoral and that it actually happened,” said Scarlett Dunlop.

“It’s hard to fathom just how terrible that was for her,” remarked Aashni Sahai.

“It really gave me a new perspective on how I live my life and how life is like for people,” said Lyla Springate. “it was really personal to me, and it’s really affected me.”

Others, like Mat Romanelli and Dario LoBianco, found Rise’s story inspiring.

“It was really amazing to hear it, and how she was able to go through such a hard time and be able to come out and still talk about it today,” Romanelli said.

“Not many people are around to tell that story and the strength that she has after all that tragedy is very impressive and very inspiring,” chimed LoBianco.

Kailee Hughes and Jose Carlos Garcia Perea say they’re fortunate to be first-hand witnesses.

“We are the last generation to be able to hear about things like this, so it’s important to learn about it and don’t forget that it happened,” said Hughes.

“We can tell other people about her story, since we are the last generation to hear of the last remaining Holocaust survivors,” remarked Garcia Perea.

Not only is it important, it’s also now mandatory that students in Arizona receive instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides at least once in junior high and again in high school.

Crose, who’s taught history at Saguaro for the past 21 years, also developed the curriculum for the district, which includes hearing from first-hand witnesses.

“It builds empathy. It builds understanding. It builds knowledge. It builds accountability. It really tells a very different version of history than just reading a textbook.”

Crose says his students’ emotions range from sorrow to guilt.

“I see students that have their own trauma and that trauma comes out, so we have to be careful with what triggers that. There are some students who are very apologetic. I’ve seen students apologize when they weren’t even a part of the history, but feel like they are part of history.”

For Rise Stillman, who was part of that history, it’s a story she was reluctant to tell for decades.

“Maybe that’s the reason why I’m still here. Now I feel I wasted a lot of time by not speaking earlier. My reason always was, I didn’t want to impart the sadness on other people,” said Stillman.

Eighty years later, her sadness lingers. But Stillman’s perspective has changed.

“I know how important this is because there are so few of us left now. I’m sure they read a lot of books about it or several books, but they [should] hear it from me, from a person who lived through it," she said.

Stillman is one of only about 60 Holocaust survivors that remain in the Phoenix area.

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Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.