She is 86 years old, though she didn’t look it when she posed with her new school polo. She doesn’t appear to be especially strong either, but she has demonstrated more strength than is ever required of most of us.
She was born Celina Karp in 1931, in Poland. How she became a member of the North High Class of 1948 is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, one in particular. And also the stuff of an inspiring appearance by this Polish Polar Bear at her alma mater Wednesday morning.
Most of the audience for Mrs. Karp Biniaz’s presentation in the school auditorium was 20th Century World History students. To them she’s what’s known in the study of history as a primary source: an artifact, document, recording, or any other source of information created at the time under study. Or on rare occasions like this, an eyewitness to and survivor of pivotal events that are painful to recall but dangerous to forget. It’s fitting that her return to Des Moines and North High was made possible thanks to support from the Iowa Jewish Historical Society.
“I was overjoyed to be in school when I came here,” she said, for almost unimaginable reasons. “You might think you are dreading a paper or an exam you have coming up, but you cannot imagine how much you miss routine things until they are denied you.”
Before any of the students were born a Steven Spielberg movie called Schindler’s List won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Picture. It recounts the true story of a Nazi businessman named Oskar Schindler whose personal epiphany during World War II led him to spend his fortune as ransom for the lives of almost 1,200 Jews. The youngest of those rescued by Schindler’s bribery of Nazi officers was 14 year-old Celina Karp.
By the time she arrived in Des Moines less than three years later North’s present campus was still a decade away. At that time North’s home was at 8th & College, where Moulton is now located.
That’s where Celina Karp spent her senior year of high school – after an adolescence clinging to dear but horrible life at the cruel hands of the Nazis, including time in the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz.
She stood face to face with the monster Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Butcher of Auschwitz” who put countless Jews to death and performed unspeakable medical experiments on many others, and begged for her life. If it hadn’t been spared so she could continue shoveling snow, peeling potatoes and cleaning toilets at the camp she never would have made Schindler’s list.
Her physical survival is directly attributable to Oskar Schindler’s heroism. But her emotional and spiritual rehabilitation are just as remarkable, and she owes them to Mater Leontine, a 90 year-old Catholic nun who taught her not to hate following her liberation.
But she credits Spielberg with giving her the voice to speak about her experience. Until the movie made Schindler’s story common knowledge Celina never spoke of what she’d been through, not even to her own children. She thought no one would understand.
After the war, the Karp family (Celina was an only child) returned to Poland, but another pogrom convinced her parents they had to find a way to America, a familiar narrative in a district as diverse as DMPS. Long and winding story shortened, her uncle met them when their ship docked in New York in June of 1947 and drove them to Des Moines, where he lived.
“I was amazed by the vastness of America on the drive,” she said. “We sailed from Europe on a troop ship. It was a rough voyage and many were seasick. Not me. I ate their ice cream.”
Celina attended summer school at East High before entering North as a senior. From there she went on to Grinnell College, Columbia University and a career as a teacher.
Her last year of school before her life erupted in turmoil and tribulation was 2nd grade. For almost six years, she didn’t even so much as hold a pencil in her hand.
“From 2nd grade to 12th with hardly any formal schooling in between,” she said. “Pretty impressive, huh?”
She looks happy in her yearbook photo, just like all the other seniors. Her nickname is listed as Lina. She was on the Senior Party Committee, vice-president of the Latin Club, and a member of the orchestra.
“That year was the happiest of my life,” she said. “For the first time in my life I had friends and teachers.”
When Mrs. Karp-Biniaz finished and invited the crowd to come up on stage and see the other primary sources she’d brought along, a line formed to shake her hand, thank her for coming and get a selfie. Again and again she flashed that 1948 smile.
Textbooks are full of accounts of the Holocaust. But…
“You can read a book or go to a museum,” Lina said, “but nothing teaches like the human voice.”
Especially ones of experience.