As Ernie Gross walks into an auditorium packed with high school students, one girl loudly whispers, “What a cute old man!” Ernie just smiles. “I am very excited to be here today,” he tells the audience in his Romanian accent. “There was a very big difference in my life when I was your age. I have a story to tell you.” As a 15-year old in 1944, Ernie was a prisoner in Auschwitz. He barely survived starvation, a brutal work detail and a 200-mile death march to Dachau.

Today, Ernie is among our region’s Holocaust survivors who shares his story at one of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s most extraordinary programs, our annual Holocaust Youth Symposium. During these sessions, hundreds of students of all faiths meet Holocaust survivors; hear their personal stories of suffering, loss and survival; and learn the universal lessons they have to teach. The Jewish Community Relations Council has presented this widely acclaimed program for regional 9th through 12th graders since 1977. Students are deeply affected by the firsthand accounts. “I will most certainly remember his story. I never heard anything like it,” says one boy after Ernie’s talk. “This is something we can pass on to generations to come.”

And not a moment too soon. A recent study by the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 41% of Americans ages 18 to 34 thought two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; 66% didn’t know what Auschwitz was. Holocaust educators say no teaching tool can compare to the voice of an actual survivor. We in Greater Philadelphia are fortunate to have our community of survivors — living bridges to a terrible and important history. And as they age into their 90s, it becomes ever more urgent to ensure their stories are heard by the younger generation. “I know that I’m here on borrowed time,” explains Ernie Gross of why he pushes himself to tell his difficult story. “To teach students, that’s why I’m doing it. I need to tell them, ‘Everybody Counts.’”

Today, on Yom HaShoah, we remember the six million murdered, honor the survivors and rededicate ourselves to our pledge to Never Forget. For more information about the Holocaust Youth Symposium and our Holocaust Education programming, click here or contact brazin@jewishphilly.org or 215.832.0536.