Pandemic Cancels Yom HaShoah commemoration – won’t erase memories for two

Susan Laielli – Florida Catholic

The Diocese of Venice Yom HaShoah – Hour of Remembrance, honoring the victims of the Holocaust, is an annual interreligious gathering which brings together members of the Catholic and Jewish communities to recommit to the promotion of peace and solidarity among all peoples. This gathering commemorates the lives and heroism of the Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

This year’s commemoration, scheduled for April 26, 2020, has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This will not diminish painful memories for two Sarasota residents.

Helga’s Story

Helga Melmed, 93, of Sarasota, says her younger years in Berlin, Germany, were a happy time, until the age of five when her life started to change. She recalls her public-school teacher beating her knuckles until they were bleeding and then encouraging the whole class to call her a “dirty Jew”.

“It was very difficult for my mother to explain to me why I was being treated this way,” says Melmed, from her Sarasota home, surrounded by photos and memories of what might seem to be someone else’s life. “I was clean, I had a bath, and was wearing pretty clothes.”

Laws were being created regulating what Jewish people could and could not do, and her mother tried to protect her from these changes.

“I would come home from school and her wedding silver would be gone, or the radio wouldn’t be there. My mother would just say she didn’t want to polish the silver anymore, or the radio was broken,” Melmed said. The Nazis were ordering Jewish families to return items to certain locations while the children were in school.

In 1938, at the age of 10, her private Jewish school was set on fire as all the children watched their books being thrown into the flames. Melmed says the children stood around holding each other crying, not understanding what was going on.

Life would change very quickly following the school fire. Her father, who worked as a bank executive was put out of work, and the family’s bank account was taken over by the Nazis, forcing the family into poverty.

“In the middle of the night, on Oct. 16, 1938, the Nazis came and said we are resettling you to a better place,” recalls Melmed. “What could be better than your own home where you were born and lived in forever?”

They had 20 minutes to evacuate the house. Many families were taken to an old warehouse, which turned out to be a slaughterhouse.

They stayed at the slaughterhouse for a day or two, before being put in cattle cars with hundreds of families packed in like ‘sardines’ with a waste bucket in the center of the car. Melmed says it wasn’t long before the bucket spilled over suffocating all in the foul smell and sludge. Many became weak and some died on that journey with an unknown destination.

Eventually the train stopped in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland, where thousands of Jews were left with little food, shanty houses and a fend-for-yourself mentality.

“We were not welcome by the other Jews there because the language was different and the people were already starving,” said Melmed, whose family would find a shack to call home with straw mats and two bunk beds nailed together, and a few food ration cards.

One day, when Melmed was 12-years old, her father was killed after the Nazi’s used many men for target practice. The men were made to run around the marketplace while being shot at by the Nazi’s. Her father was dragged home and dropped on the doorstep dead.

“Mother was heartbroken, and she started to get very sick and couldn’t work,” recalls Melmed, who cared for her before and after work. “She would often give me her food because she said she couldn’t eat. I still feel guilty about that today.”

“On my 14th Birthday my mom, who was still very sick, told me she had a birthday present for me. She handed me an onion,” smiled Melmed, the memory still bringing tears.

The meals the family had been eating consisted of potato peels and coffee grounds fried in mineral oil. A desperate wish of Melmed was to have an onion to add taste to the meal. Her wish was granted. That night, her mother went to bed, and died.

Alone for months, Melmed was working in the factory sewing buttons on uniforms when a Polish-Jewish man came by and wanted to adopt four boys and four girls, so as to offer them a better life.

“We all became a family – I worked 12 hours a day sewing ladies’ undergarments, which was better than buttons, and we had plenty of food,” Melmed said.

The peaceful time ended in 1942 when the Nazi’s, who were trying to stay ahead of the Russian forces, emptied the ghettos and took all to Auschwitz, the now infamous concentration camp. Melmed, and the other girls, would never see the four boys again.

Towards the end of the war, 17-year old Melmed was only 46 pounds when she was set free.

Art’s Story

In 1942, halfway around the world in Chicago, then 17-year old Arthur Sheridan was realizing that engineering school was not for him, so he decided to join the U.S. Army.  Sheridan, who wanted to fly, would go through basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and much to his dismay would score high on an engineering test which led to him attending Indiana University for the U.S. Army Specialized Training Corps.

“When we arrived, the first thing we asked was how much KP (Kitchen Patrol) duty will we have?” said Sheridan, 94, from his home in Sarasota. “We were told none – then we asked how much guard duty do we have? We were told none, you just have to go to school, which is what I was trying to avoid!”

Sheridan trained as a sniper and scout with the 20th Armored Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and was eventually shipped to Europe, landing at La Havre, France.

“When our equipment arrived, we went across the Rhine and into Germany, with many skirmishes along the way, which I don’t like to talk about because of the death and dying,” said Sheridan. “Our troops all did what they were supposed to do – I hope you understand what that means.”

The Armored Division was later instructed to support the 45th and 42nd Infantry divisions in taking Munich. On the way, Sheridan and the soldiers came across a railroad track, on the outskirts of Dachau, with 39 boxcars full of dead bodies.

“We would learn later these were concentration camp people who had been moved from Poland eastward so the Russians wouldn’t get them,” Sheridan said.

The troops went through the train to see if anyone was alive. Sheridan says he only learned recently that there may have been one person who survived.

“At the time we knew nothing of concentration camps – this is an important issue,” he said. “We knew about Nazis, atrocities and Hitler, but not these camps.”

The troops arrived at the Dachau Concentration Camp to find thousands of people hanging on a fence, after the Nazi guards had fled, or were captured.

“I am Jewish and speak a little Yiddish, so I understood a bit of what they were saying,” said Sheridan. “We went through the camp to find emaciated people, some so sick they could not get out of the barracks. We saw the gas chambers.”

Before returning to the United States, Sheridan’s Division was sent to Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps, where he saw the bombed ruins of one of Hitler’s vacation homes.

Sarasota, 2020

As irony would have it, both Art Sheridan and Helga Melmed each live in Sarasota and speak often at Holocaust Museums around the country. They have met a few times and hold an enormous amount of respect for each other.

The Diocese of Venice regrets the Coronavirus Pandemic has forced the cancellation of Yom HaShoah this year and is committed to continuing the effort to keep the memory of the Holocaust and keep to the vow that “We will never forget.”

Retiring Mooney President leaves lasting legacy

By Karen Christie – Special to the Florida Catholic

After 39 years of compassion, loyalty, and devotion to Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School, Sister Mary Lucia Haas, Sister of Notre Dame, the school’s President, will be retiring at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. I had the pleasure to talk to Sister Lucia about this important time in her life, and asked what comes to her mind when she thinks about retirement. Laughing slightly, she replied with a question of her own: “What can I still do?” Her hope is to continue to help others around her.

Sister Mary Jucia Hass, Sister of Notre Dame, sits in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the campus of Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota where she is retiring as School President and has worked a combined 39 years.

Sister Lucia grew up in the small town of North Ridgeville, Ohio, the youngest of eight children and later attended Erieview Catholic High School. After graduation Sister went to Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. Both were all-girls schools run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. She later attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where she received her Master’s degree.

Since her favorite subjects were science and math, Sister Lucia originally intended to major in chemistry. The science program at Notre Dame College focused on students who intended to teach at the high school level. Sister found chemistry interesting, but she wasn’t planning to go into the teaching field at that time.

Always a morning person, while in college she began attending 6:30 a.m. Mass every day with the religious sisters. As a sophomore in high school, she was approached by one of the sisters about possibly considering the religious life, but at that time her goals were centered more upon her scholastic work. Once in college, however, she felt the need to answer the calling that God wanted her to join the religious life by becoming a nun. The more she went to Mass, the more she realized that this was what she was meant to do.

Upon graduating from college, Sister Lucia received her first assignment, or “mission” as it is referred to by her religious order. She was first ordered to St. Peter’s Catholic High School in downtown Cleveland, where she taught from 1963 to 1967. From 1967 to 1976, she was sent to Notre Dame High School in Middleburg, Va.

It was in 1976 that she first was assigned to Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota. During her first three years, she taught science, theology, and math, before being promoted to become the principal, a position she held for six years.

As is common for religious, she was moved again and in 1986 she was assigned as the new principal at Lorraine Catholic High School in Ohio. Her final move came in 1989 when she returned to Cardinal Mooney for good, eventually earning the title of President.

Sister Mary Lucia Hass, Sister of Notre Dame, is seen with Bishop Frank J. Dewane during her 50th anniversary jubilee in 2012 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice.

“When I think of her contributions I think of the difference just one person can make,” said Father Matthew Grady, Cardinal Mooney Chaplain. “In a word, I would say Sister’s ministry is an example of: commitment.”

Sister Lucia notes that her first memory of Cardinal Mooney was of the palm trees and how the air was so dry. The school environment, though, was very similar to where she grew up in Ohio.

When asked about notable experiences, Sister replied that she found the duties concerned with building new facilities on campus to be the most challenging of the experiences in her career. Describing her most rewarding times at Cardinal Mooney, Sister Lucia reflected on how many graduates have come back to visit the school during one of their college breaks, and how appreciative they were to have had the opportunity to go to a high school that prepared them for college, and life thereafter.

Outside of work, it may surprise people to know that Sister Lucia likes to golf and fish, although fishing is more of a fond childhood memory of time spent with her siblings.  One of the things she hopes to do when she retires is to become proficient in the use of technological devices, including her iPad and iPhone.

In addition, Sister Lucia has a friend who volunteers at the Cosgrove Center, located in North Ridgeville, Ohio, which is dedicated to helping the homeless. Sister herself can no longer drive, but she hopes to be able to go with her friend a few times a week to provide her services and help feed and clothe the homeless.  Ironically, the center for the homeless is located in what used to be her alma mater, Erieview Catholic High School. At the Cosgrove Center, Sister wants to continue to fulfill God’s calling by being kind and helpful to others just as they have been to her. “I started where I’ll be ending up,” Sister says thoughtfully.

When asked what she feels is her strongest quality, she can always manage to look and act cheerful even when she may feel frustrated or upset on the inside. She is so thankful to have been in great health for many years.

Her motto, or philosophy in life is simple and sweet: “God is good!”

Sister Lucia has been such a valuable asset to Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School. It is easy to see that during both the challenging and rewarding times, she has always remained positive. More importantly, throughout her Mooney career, Sister reflected how her dedication and faithfulness ensured that the school provides a positive example for student’s lives by living her own philosophy each day.

As Sarah Gates, a Cardinal Mooney Theology teacher and former Mooney student puts it, “Sister Lucia’s commitment to God shines through in the work she has done at Cardinal Mooney and in the community of Sarasota.”

Father Grady, calls Sister Lucia “a fellow worker in the Lord’s vineyard who never counted the hours, but was delighted by every moment she spent with us.”

Congratulations Sister Lucia upon your retirement. Thank you for your years of service. May the Grace of God go with you as you begin the next chapter in your life.