‘So Many Bystanders Didn’t Speak Up’: Holocaust Education Specialist

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A display at Cassese’s MVR shows a timeline of Bill Vegh’s life. On the right side are pictures of the former Youngstown resident’s wedding, a vacation at the beach and family events.

But the left side of the timeline shows a darker period in his life. It detailed his life in Nazi-occupied Europe and his time in Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp.

Jesse McClain, the Holocaust education specialist for the Youngstown Jewish Federation, used his friend’s life as an example during a presentation at the Youngstown Rotary Club weekly meeting. 

“The sad part is when there is a conflict, there are so many bystanders that don’t speak up,” McClain said. “It doesn’t affect them at the moment, so they don’t speak up.”

One day, Vegh’s encountered a writer who said he didn’t believe in the Holocaust. It prompted the survivor to start telling his story and educating people on what happened. Eventually, Vegh met McClain at a workshop and the pair developed a close friendship. In time, McClain, a Catholic, also began speaking about the Holocaust.

“Because of my relationship with Bill and my education – I was educated in Poland, Europe and Yad Vashem [Israel’s national memorial to victims of the Holocaust] – I owe it that this not be forgotten,” McClain said.

Part of that effort is putting a face to the Holocaust and exposing people to the personal impact of the genocide. It’s why McClain tells the stories of people like Vegh or Henry Kinast, another former Youngstown resident.

“When you bring it down to an individual and you see the difference they made because they survived. … If you look, you can see that Bill ended up having three children,” McClain said. “The Nazis didn’t accomplish what they wanted to.”

Jesse McClain uses the life story of his friend Bill Vegh to explain what happened during the Holocaust.

Vegh and his family were among 420,000 Jews sent from Hungary to Auschwitz between April and July of 1944. Vegh, his father and a brother were separated from his mother, sister and two younger brothers. He never saw them again.

Vegh was one of the last groups sent to Auschwitz. While there he was tattooed with the number 18, a mark he thought would bring good luck since the numerical values for chai – Hebrew for “life” – add up to that figure.

As the Soviet Union began drawing closer to the concentration camp, the Germans began sending the prisoners in what would become known as “death marches.” Vegh was among those pushed into Germany, but he survived.

Eventually, he was freed and emigrated to the United States as a teenager. He didn’t have any surviving family, so he decided to move to Youngstown to reconnect with a friend he made at the camp.

Vegh got married and started a family. Much of his family still lives in the Youngstown area. 

Kinast, who McClain touched on briefly, started working at a tool and die shop and eventually began a business in Liberty that eventually evolved into PSK Steel in Hubbard.

The political environment in the United States – and its ability to turn honest discussions into raucous arguments – has become a concern for McClain. It’s a situation that in some ways mirrors Nazi Germany, he says, when the party instigated finger-pointing and blaming to turn communities against each other and bolster its rise to power.

“You got to come together, and that’s why I like speaking to a group like the Rotary,” McClain said. “They’re out there. They’re involved people.”

McClain is willing to speak to groups to further educate those on the Holocaust. He speaks at schools, church events and other gathers. But he said the biggest challenge is getting in touch with a younger audience.

As a former English teacher at Boardman Center Middle School, McClain said part of the problem falls on the curriculum. He said the current educational structure is too focused on test results and tend to avoid going in depth on the Holocaust or “human issues” because they’re sensitive topics.

“Today, it’s teaching for a test. There’s no passion,” McClain said. “Where’s that individual’s passion? … I don’t see that anymore. I’m going in and I’m seeing robots. They could tell you the square root of something, but the passion, I don’t see the passion anymore.”

To set up a speaking event with McClain, contact the Youngstown Jewish Federation at 330 746 3251.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.