RENO, NV - Last week, a California school was under fire for an assignment asking eighth grade students whether the Holocaust was a real event, or propaganda used for political gain.
The essay was from a Common Core prompt, and the school district has since revised the question for future use. But the controversial assignment stirred up painful memories for the men and women who lived the actual event.
"It was always a question of survival," 86-year-old Joseph Kempler, a Holocaust survivor said. "Survival at any cost."
And that is how Joseph spent the most formative years of his life.
Joseph was 11 when World War II broke out. At the age of 14, with no parents and no papers, Joseph says he would have died if he stayed in his hometown of Krakow. Survival to him was being reunited with whichever family members were still alive. Even if it meant willfully going into a concentration camp.
"My brother was at Racowice," Joseph said. 'So I stalked the trucks that were taking people away and found the one going to Racowice. I actually sneaked into the camp because my situation was I had no place to go."
Racowice would be the first of six camps Joseph would live in before the age of 17. His brother did not survive.
"I couldn't give up. Because people who gave up died."
Survival, then, came at a higher cost than lost freedom.
"The only thing you could do was disconnect yourself from all the feelings."
Joseph was at Ebensee when he was freed by American soldiers after the War. But even after being liberated, he says he never felt free because death was still hovering.
"We were so starved the Americans gave us all the food we could eat," he said. "But that was the problem. The food was not meant for starving people. People were dying standing up because they couldn't absorb the food."
Joseph came to America to live with his sister and her husband after the War.
To this day, Joe says he still keeps and emotional barrier. But that doesn't stop the memories from coming back.
"It comes in at night with my dreams; nightmares."
One way to help with the nightmares was to write every memory down. With the help of his daughter-in-law April Kempler, Joe was able to publish the truth about the Holocaust he experience.
"I wrote this story and everything in it is true," Joe said.
But there is at least one thing that can cause Joe to feel emotion; hearing people question if the Holocaust was real. Which is exactly what some students in California were asked to do. Defenders of the assignment say the question was meant to make students use critical thinking skills. But for survivors, it was painful reminder.
"I felt furious, angry because [the] Holocaust was probably the most documented event of WWII," Joseph said.
But now, Joe and April say they see the controversial assignment as something positive.
"It's unfortunate that this has even come up," April said. "But I thought it was a really good opportunity to find out what these students thought, what they were hearing, what they were seeing. And the teacher had an excellent opportunity to direct them in a more accurate way."
Joe's book is titled 'The Altered I' and can be purchased from Amazon, Google Play books, Sundance Books and Music, and directly from the publisher LeRue Press.