Many of the students wiped tears from their eyes as we exited the museum auditorium. We had heard the harrowing saga of a Holocaust survivor's escape as a child from the Nazis who brutally executed her family.
The survivor told us that in Lithuania, her country of origin, over 98% of the Jewish population had been wiped out. Her own grandparents had been taken to a large ditch, stripped, and machine gunned. Her speech was soft, but her words had a hard hitting impact. We stood inside an actual sweltering boxcar that had been used to transport Jewish people to the death camps. All we had seen produced a somber, reflective mood.
We wandered through the displays in the bookstore area in a somewhat stunned silence. I heard my name. "Come over here! We want to show you something!" The two boys who came to get me were wide eyed and obviously excited.
They pulled me over to a display case filled with incredibly exquisite works of glass art, some so fragile in appearance that a hard breath could have brought disaster.
They pointed to the placard telling about the glass artist, whose name was Rubin. The picture showed an elderly man standing next to his work with a gentle smile on his face.
"Look, look, there he is!" one of them exclaimed.
"Yes, I see. I'm sure he's got quite a story to tell," I replied.
They were urgent. "No, look!" the other one said, pointing from the placard to the front desk. "We think that's him!"
I looked the direction he was pointing and saw an elderly volunteer working at the front desk of the museum. He had the same gentle smile, so the boys and I moved closer.
"Sir, we were admiring the glass works in the display case and we couldn't help but notice you bear a striking resemblance to the man in the picture. Is that you?" I asked.
"Well, yes! That's me!" he heartily answered in a charming Polish accent. "I made all those glass pieces, as well as the stained glass windows in the library. It keeps me off the streets, you know."
He continued, "I start with sand and take all the way through the process to come up with what you see there. I've been doing glasswork for a long time now."
"How long?" one of the boys couldn't resist asking.
"Actually, I learned it in the concentration camps." He reached out his hand to shake each of ours and as his hand turned, we saw the blue black number tattooed into his arm.
"I was seized when I was 15, not much older than you two. They took my father, too. My mother and sisters, we never saw again. We heard stories later that they were gassed at Auschwitz, but I've never been able to find out for sure. My two sisters were only 7 and 5, and my mother was pregnant. There wasn't much hope for the children and pregnant women."
More of my students had gathered around him and were listening in rapt attention.
"I was so scared that I wanted to give up, but my dad was with me for the first few months and he kept telling me I couldn't quit. I had to live to make it out, to tell our story."
"We never had enough to eat, although my dad always tried to give me some of his portion. One morning, he didn't wake up. I could see he was gone. I kept hearing his voice inside my head... Don't give up. So I forced myself.
"I learned to work glass in the concentration camps. I was in four camps, and because I had this skill now, I was worth a little something to them as a slave laborer. After liberation, I first thought I would never want to work glass again. But, I decided I had a choice. I could either make the best of what I knew, or I could shut it off and pretend like it never happened. I thought the best way to honor my family and all the others who died was to create beauty out of something that had been so horrible. So I create glass out of sand.
"You know, you have that saying in English, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade? Well, I say, When life gives you sand, make glass!"
He chuckled and his eyes shone brightly as we filed past him on our way out.
"Don't forget- when life gives you sand, make glass!" he called out.