It took Sidney Finkel more than 50 years to talk about the horrors he experienced firsthand as a Jewish boy from Poland during the Holocaust, but once he began telling his story to younger generations he was finally able to start healing.
Finkel, 80, of South suburban Matteson, told his story of sorrow and survival in a Jewish ghetto and later a concentration camp to more than 200 eighth-graders at Jack London Middle School in Wheeling on Wednesday.
He said it was a "therapeutic" decision later in life to share his story.
"I've found acceptance through this and I like doing it," Finkel said. "I'm not lecturing or moralizing, they need to come to their on own conclusions about what happened."
Born in 1931, Sevek Finkelstein was a young teenager when he was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp, the same age as many of the students he spoke to on Wednesday afternoon. As one of the younger Holocaust survivors, Finkel told the students they may be one of the last generations to meet a survivor from that era.
Only 8 when the Nazis invaded Poland, Finkel didn't understand the details of Adolf Hitler's regime but said he remembered hiding in the cellar as explosives flew overhead and knowing his life would never be the same.
"That is when I learned what it was to be afraid," he said.
From a ghetto to a slave labor camp to Buchenwald, Finkel detailed his story as a young boy separated from his family but intent on surviving.
"I knew if I lived another day it would get better, or at least I hoped so," Finkel said.
After liberation, Finkel moved to England, and with both of his parents dead, he said it was a series of good teachers that brought him back to life.
"I knew how to survive, but I didn't know how to deal with people. They taught me to read and loved me until I could love myself again," said Finkel. He dedicated his 2006 memoir, "Sevek: The Boy Who Refused to Die," to teachers who explain lessons of the Holocaust to the next generation.
Those teachers are why Finkel has now shared his story with more than 150 schools around the country, helping students learn and helping himself heal along the way.
Recovering from such a traumatic experience has taken a lifetime, but speaking about it has been the best therapy, said Finkel, who first shared his story with his own children less than 20 years ago and began reaching out to others after a meaningful trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Although his wife of 50 years, Jene, has heard the story countless times, she said she still gets chills whenever her husband retells it.
"Every time I hear it I get emotional," she said.
Before he started to share his story, Finkel was plagued by nightmares and anger.
"I used to want revenge, the anger was eating me and I couldn't enjoy my good life," Finkel said. "But through speaking I began the process of forgiving the Germans and that is what really liberated me. Otherwise the hatred would be passed along to my children and it has to end somewhere."
Ending the cycle is part of why London Middle School teacher Gary Puhy said it is so important to help his students really understand the Holocaust. Jack London students also saw a performance of "Anne Frank" at the Metropolis Theatre Wednesday morning before hearing Finkel's story.
"We have to keep it alive so it doesn't happen again," Puhy said.
He said as students learn the details of the Holocaust he sees them internalize it and start thinking about the way they treat one another.
"The last time I heard about the Holocaust I was too young to understand," said Abby Greenspan, 14 of Wheeling. "This is something I'll remember forever."
Students lined up to get autographed copies of Finkel's book and share their own stories or connections to the Holocaust through grandparents or other relatives.
"He's such a strong person, it was really inspirational," said Michelle Fiegler, 14, of Wheeling. "It made me grateful for my life and everyone in my family."