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Holocaust survivor memoir gives freshmen a glimpse at the horrors of genocide

Holocaust survivor memoir gives freshmen a glimpse at the horrors of genocide

January 27, 2020 at 1:55pm

Martin Baranek cheated death—more than once. A child during WWII, Baranek spent 17 months in a labor camp. In January 1945, he was forced on a death march from Auschwitz to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Later he was forced on another death march to Gunskierchen. There he was liberated by the American infantry on May 4, 1945.

Unfortunately, six million other Jews didn't survive. Today on International Holocaust Remembrance Day—which marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp— the world pauses to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. Incoming FIU freshmen, though, have been discussing the Holocaust since the summer semester, learning about the genocide through Baranek's life story.

Determined: A Memoir by Baranek and Lisa B. Cicero chronicles Baranek’s experiences in a Polish ghetto and labor camp, escaping Auschwitz and evading execution numerous times. Baranek's story of survival is nothing less than a chain of miracles. The memoir shares the author’s intense will to survive the unimaginable and to rebuild his life, teaching invaluable lessons to persons of all age groups. It is the 2019-20 required common reading for freshmen.

Nearly 5,650 students have read the book. In the mandatory First Year Experience course (SLS1501), they've analyzed the text and written an essay reflecting on dominant themes and how they relate to their lives.

“The Common Reading Program unites our first-year students through a shared intellectual experience,” says Valerie J. Johnsen, academic provost for Academic and Career Services. “Each year, a book is chosen with the hope of igniting meaningful discussions. We hope Martin’s story will inspire students to create a life of meaning and purpose.” 

An instructor of the First Year Experience course, Marisely Rojas '10, MS '13 shared that her first impression of the book was to question how students would relate to someone who is in their 90s. 

"Usually students find it difficult to relate to people who are in their 30s and 40s," Rojas says. She went on to explain that she was pleasantly surprised when reading the book and went over its themes with her students, who could each relate to the author's journey in common ways.

Daniel Otero-Pfaeffle, a nutrition student who read the book this summer, shares his experience:

"I wasn't excited. I got more and more excited as I kept reading it because I was seeing a perspective that I had never seen before. It was very intense. I related to Martin's struggle with the abrupt loss of his innocence. Two years ago, I lost my dad to cancer. Putting myself in Martin's shoes really helped me to understand some of his struggles and relate to them in my own way," Otero-Pfaeffle says. 

Reading Baranek's memoir, Otero-Pfaeffle adds, also taught him the importance of appreciating what you have in the moment. 

"In life you never know what's gonna happen next," he says. "There’s no guarantee of anything. As I read the book, I assumed [Baranek's] experience would be constant, but I realized that things just got worse. [He] lost everything in one day— he lost his family, got sent to another camp and so on. My main takeaway is that things can always get worse. You have to appreciate what you have in the moment and continue to fight no matter how bad things get."

First Year Experience course instructor Christine Angel says it is important for students to read this text.

"Many students may be dealing with what they think is the end of the world," Angel says. "If they look at the author, they will see that whatever it was wasn't such a big factor in their lives as they experienced it. [Baranek] had to be determined to carry his life on, beyond his experiences. Students can really draw from that. Regardless of their experiences, life will always move forward."

The memoir touches on themes of family and togetherness, the value of friendship and bonds formed, and Baranek's loss of both innocence and religion. Working through its thick coating to find the seeds of courage, freshmen have drawn parallels between their lives and that of Baranek’s.  

 Hosted by the library, the Common Reading Essay Contest welcomes applicants to submit an essay on this year’s book for the opportunity to win cash prizes. For more information on requirements and deadlines, visit here.