Sami Steigmann was born in three different coun tries. The town of Czernowitz where he was born is a physical testament to the horrors of war. At different times, it was in Romania, the former Soviet Union and the Ukraine. Since World War II, it has been part of Romania and the town where Sami spent his youth following his liberation from a Nazi labor camp where he was incarcerated with his parents. At the age of 18 months, he became a prisoner of the Nazi regime and was the subject of medical experimentation until his release at the age of four.

Amazingly, Sami and his parents survived, though they lost 40 out of 42 relatives. Their crime? They were Jews. Despite the horrors of his early childhood, Sami’s message when he spoke to hundreds of students at the regional high school this week was one of hope and forgiveness. Stressing that not all Germans were criminals and not all non-Germans were innocents, Sami urged the students to be proud of their heritage and to stand firmly on their own moral ground. “When you see someone being bullied or you hear a joke that mocks another ethnic group, don’t say it’s not my problem,” he said. “It is your problem, it’s everyone’s problem.” Speaking to rapt audiences in three presentations, Sami shared his own personal struggles, posed for selfies with students and constantly reiterated that forgiveness is the recipe for a happy life. Students had prepared questions for several days in advance of his visit, and the questions ranged from requests for historical detail to asking his advice on how to deal with painful situations.

All three presentations were tailored to the interests of the audience, and Sami’s interactive style and humor eased the discussion about some of the worst crimes ever committed. “What is it,” he asked, “that makes ordinary people become monsters? It is ordinary people who committed these acts that we are discussing.” Skillfully, he drew the students into consideration of the eternal question of how do good people do terrible things, at the same time making sure that the students understood that his life as a small child dying of dehydration and starvation was saved by a German woman who risked everything to give him milk.

Sami was the guest of six students who had met him in New York when they visited the city as part of an exchange program with the high school of Economics and Finance. They invited him, publicized his visit, made T-shirts celebrating him and honoring appreciation for diversity. Each shirt bore the legend chosen by Jr. Teles: “We hate certain persons because we do not know them, and we do not know them because we hate them.”

“He did not ask for money, and came up from New York on the bus and he was just so kind and happy that it made me smile,” said Jason Lages. “He lives in Manhattan on $1,000 a month and he did not mind. His presentation was great — he spoke up for everyone.”

The rest of the group concurred. “I am going to see him in New York when I go to Barnard in the fall,” said Anne Ollen. “It was nice to see that people came in and shared breakfast with him, and with us,” said Gabe Nunes, who spent an hour poring over a Nazi blog that had named Sami in derogatory, anti Semitic terms. Brandon Dwane found Sami’s speech inspirational: “I think students got a chance to hear someone talk to them in a way that will inspire them about how to live a good life,” he said.

The organizing group was proud and excited over Sami’s successful visit to the school. They had worked hard on the arrangements and made life-changing decisions based on what they had learned. True learning, the kind that sticks, had happened.

We are all wiser.

Elaine Cawley Weintraub teaches history at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.