Nancy Kennedy Barnett | Milwaukee, WI
My dad’s last name was Ungar, which is a German name. When he got out of the concentration camps at the end of the war, he didn’t want anything to do with Germany. After he was accepted to Texas A&M and knew he was coming to America, he wanted a name that sounded English. The name change had to be approved by the Hungarian government, so he went through a phone book to find a name that was Hungarian but would be okay in America. It was either Kennedy or Gordon. He flipped a coin, it landed on tails, and he became George Kennedy.
My dad was a Holocaust survivor. He was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1923. Hungary was on the side of Germany at the beginning of the war. My dad’s family was Jewish, and they had a tough life, but they weren’t being murdered. In March 1944, when my dad was twenty-one, Hitler launched Operation Margarethe. He ordered Nazi troops to occupy Hungary, and the mass deportations of Jews to German concentration camps began. Between May 15 and July 9, the Nazis deported 437,402 Jews. At the end of the war, only about 6,000 of the 50,000 Hungarian Jews that went into the labor camps remained. My dad was one of them. He was in the labor camps for a year until the war ended.
My dad was a young, strong man, and was sent to a labor camp. A very small percentage of Jewish people were moved into the ghettos, and of that percentage, an even smaller percentage made it out alive. My grandmother was one of them.
My dad would tell me stories about knocking down pine trees, digging ditches, and doing the hard work that they needed strong men to do. He was moved around a lot. When the war ended, he was in a camp on the Austro-Hungarian border. It took him sixteen days to walk home. He looked at the sun, said, ‘Budapest is this way,’ and started walking. It was 136 miles. When he got there, someone else was living in his house, but he found his mom. She said to him, ‘I stayed alive so I could tell you what happened during this year.’ Seven months after my dad was taken to the work camps, my grandfather was taken. You hear about the death marches; my grandfather was on one. We never found out where he died.
Since my dad was taken first, he thought his parents were both still in Budapest. Thinking about getting back home to his parents gave him inner strength and helped keep him alive. But now his father was dead. His mother died nine months after he got home. He told me that if his mother hadn’t died, he probably wouldn’t have come to America. We once had a large family tree, with hundreds of people on it. After the war, there were three people left on the tree. My father, his uncle, and a cousin.
As soon as he got home from the camps, Dad applied for a Hillel scholarship to go to college in the U.S., got accepted to Texas A & M, and moved to Texas. He became an Aggie, sang ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ and loved watching the football games on Thanksgiving. He got his master’s degree at UW-Madison, then moved to Chicago to work as a structural engineer. He met my mom on a blind date. They had three daughters.
I always knew about the Holocaust. My dad talked about it, but he didn’t start talking publicly until the early 2000s. He became a speaker for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and in Wisconsin since my parents had a place in Elkhart Lake. My dad was talking about his experience and doing lectures and I never felt any need to do it. At my father’s funeral in 2010, I knew it was now my turn. I had to tell his story.
I had videoed my dad telling his story and put together a multimedia presentation. Using those videos the kids are actually hearing from the survivor! Years ago, my husband and I went with Mom and Dad to Budapest. In several video clips I use, Dad is showing me something and refers to me. You can hear my voice on the tape. When I am doing a presentation in a Wisconsin school I can say, ‘This is my father’, and I’m standing right next to him. You hear his voice, and you hear mine. I think it makes it harder to deny that the Holocaust happened because I have connected the dots. This primary testimony is important because our parents, the survivors, are gone.
I love to do presentations, the only thing that gives me a bit of nerves is my fear that the technology won’t work. Do I have the right cords to connect the computer to the projector and screen? But I am never scared of talking, even though I might be the first Jewish person the students have met. I feel the responsibility to tell this story. When my dad was alive, I didn’t. Today, I absolutely feel the need.
My father told his Holocaust story and now I tell it. At the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee, (HERC) we teach the lessons of the Holocaust to make a better society. The majority of students I’ve talked to are sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders. It is not just a history lesson I’m teaching. The teacher can do that. If all someone gets from my presentation is a history lesson, then I haven’t done my job. In today’s world, you have to connect the dots between bullying, getting involved, being upstanders and not bystanders.
I work hard to make the presentation real to them so that they can see that it’s not just history. One video I share is of my dad telling what it was like being a Jewish schoolboy before the Holocaust. He says that when he went to school, bullies would be across the street and they’d send a six- or seven-year-old boy to come and kick the Jews in the shins. He said, ‘We would need to ask ourselves what to do. Do we take the humiliation of being kicked in the shins by a little pipsqueak kid, or do we fight back and get beat up?’ Stories like that connect with students; they can understand.
I am often asked why my father didn’t escape. He couldn’t escape. One time he and a friend tried and hid inside a haystack. The farmer saw them and told an SS guard. The SS guard got my father, brought him over to a ditch, jammed his gun into my dad’s belly, and barked, ‘Jump, Jew!’ My dad told me he was frozen; he just stood there and didn’t say anything. Just then, a higher-ranking officer came by and took the guard with him to do something else. My dad ran and joined the rest of the workers. That’s luck. My dad is alive because he was lucky.
Four years ago, I spoke to a class that had gone on a field trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, the previous day. After the presentation, I asked if there were any questions. One girl raised her hand and said, ’So I was talking to my mom last night, and she said that she has a friend who said the Holocaust never happened, but it should have.’ My mouth dropped. The teacher’s mouth dropped.
In my presentations, I always make sure to connect the dots. I am here in the classroom, standing in front of you, so I am real. I am showing you a video of my dad talking about his Holocaust experience, and you hear my voice in the video, so he is real. So basically, I am being called a liar, but more importantly, she’s being fed untruths by her mom. (We all agreed that the ‘friend’ who said the Holocaust didn’t happen was her mom.)
Even though it was an awful thing to hear, I felt really good to know that I created a space where she felt comfortable being curious. That is what I like about students in eighth grade. They are beginning to think for themselves, and in this instance, what the mom said did not jive with what the student saw at the museum and what she heard me say.
I was one of the people who testified in support of the Holocaust Education Act when Wisconsin was considering the mandate in 2021. I shared this teaching story with both the Senate and the Assembly. The Act passed unanimously.
I think it’s important to connect today to yesterday. For example, I talk about the Unite the Right rally that happened in Charlottesville in 2017. When you use the history lessons to better understand today, the students sit up a little more, and they pay more attention. One of the last videos I show in my presentation is my dad saying, ‘It can happen again. You have to get involved. You’ve got to stop things at the very beginning. You’ve got to be an upstander, not a bystander.’
I feel the responsibility to tell this story. When my dad was alive, I didn’t. Today, I absolutely feel the need. I am 66 years old. I’ve been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League coach, a soccer coach, and president of my synagogue. I’m chair of the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee and I’m on the board of HERC. I’m a nurse and I’ve worked in Covid clinics for the last two years.
One of the things I say to the students is, ‘You’ve got to remember the past, plan for the future, but you’ve got to live today, and you got to get involved.’ And one person can make a difference!
I definitely feel part of the solution. I am going to work hard to make meaningful discussions so that kids, after spending an hour with me, will have a change in them. It’s up to them what change it is. But I want to spark something. It’s just so important because we’re just more and more divided. I want to build things together with people. I think we have got to find mutual ground so that we can go forward.”
Nancy’s story was produced by Jen Rubin and is part of a story series about people who teach about the Holocaust in schools. You can read some of Nancy’s testimony and learn more about the bill the Wisconsin legislature passed that mandates Holocaust education here.
Photo 1: Nancy and her dad, George Kennedy in 2005; Photo 2: Nancy telling her father’s story at North Shore Middle School; Photo 3: A page of George’s photo album. (Top picture at Texas A&M, bottom picture after returning from Concentration Camp weighing only 70 pounds) Photo 4: Nancy at the state Capitol, testifying on the legislation, telling her father’s story; Photo 5: top picture, Hermina Schick (Nancy’s grandmother), Mor Miklos Ungar (Nancy’s grandfather) and George; Photo 6: George and Nancy in 2010 at Congregation Shalom.
This video was created for a 2019 Holocaust Education Resource Center event when Nancy was honored for her work in the community.