Shiri Sandler grew up listening to the stories of her grandmother, Gisela Adamski, and her friends -- all survivors of the Holocaust reign of terror during World War II.

Now, Sandler is the U.S. director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, leading military students through educational programs that include tours of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland.

"I was that kind of child, who collected stories," Sandler said in a recent phone interview. And Sandler will be telling her own stories as the keynote speaker for the town's 31st annual Holocaust Commemoration at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in First Church Congregational, 148 Beach Road.

"My grandmother's friends, I think they always knew that I would be the one to know their stories." And that knowledge, she said, let them sleep better at night.

Her time in college, Sandler said, coincided with the genocide in the Darfur area of Sudan in Africa, and she became interested in that and its parallels to the Holocaust persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany, so the military program weaves them all together.

It was Adamski, she said, who convinced her that the stories of the Holocaust survivors had to be told for everyone -- not just the Jews. And Sandler said when she works with the cadets from the service academies, they not only hear the stories of Holocaust survivors, but also hear from survivors of Darfur and the Rwandan genocide.

"It's a sensitive issue," Sandler said, for some of the Holocaust survivors to hear what they went through compared to others' experiences. "They're concerned their experience doesn't seem unique."

But again, her grandmother's advice sustains her, she said. "I was raised by a woman who feels everyone's pain is unique," Sandler said. "We must talk about other genocides." She wants her students to learn and recognize the precursors to genocide and to be able to "recognize the dehumanization," even in the use of racial or homophobic slurs. "We need recognize how we "other" people and the dangers of that," Sandler said.

Her grandmother, an only child born in Oppelm, Germany, will be with Sandler at the Fairfield commemoration. "It's emotional, but standing up there with my grandmother is an honor; to be someone who has been trusted with her stories, her friends' stories, my grandfather's stories -- it's an honor. It's a bit painful, but also joyous."

Adamski, now 86, was not legally allowed to attend school after the eighth grade. Her family -- her father, a decorated World War I veteran and her mother -- were deported from Oppelm to the "model" ghetto in Poland, which had "better" living conditions, and was the ghetto Nazis would show off to the world.

But in 1944, at age 16, her father received notice that he was being deported once again. That notice came just two weeks after her mother suffered a stroke. Then, her mother's name came up to be deported. Adamski's name was not on the list, but she was not going to leave her mother, so she switched her name with another girl's. In October of that year, Adamski and her mother were sent to Auschwitz, and separated at the ramp -- her mother sent to die.

Adamski ended up in work camps, then was sent on a death march into Germany, when she and a group of teenage girls escaped after a Polish farmer told them the Nazis were no longer counting heads. They hid in a small barn until being liberated by the Russian Army. She went back to her home, but neither parent was there. Her father had been killed on Christmas Eve as a "present" to Hitler.

Adamski got married, living first in France and then in Israel before coming to New York City. Now, she lives in West Hartford, and recounts her experiences to school groups. She will, Sandler said, be presented with an honorary high school diploma from the Law and Government Academy in Hartford this June. "My grandmother's really, really excited, and very proud," Sandler said.

The Holocaust Commemoration is free and open to the public, but donations are accepted. All donations made will benefit the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

For more information about the event, visit