HURON — People in Huron and the Huron area will have the unique opportunity to hear a story of survival on Monday, Oct. 8, when acclaimed teacher, author and Holocaust survivor Dr. France Pruitt speaks at two different sessions, at the Huron Event Center. She will speak at 2:30 p.m. and again at 6:30 p.m. in sessions open to the general public.
A speaking engagement by an ethnically Jewish survivor of World War II Europe is something that is a rarity for central South Dakota. How she got here is a story unto itself.
France Pruitt and her family fled from their homes in Belgium when Nazi troops invaded during WWII. They immigrated to the south of France, where she and her family survived through the generosity of farm people in the region who hid them when the Nazi’s invaded France, as well as by the courage and intelligence of her parents.
After the war, the family came to the United States, where France’s father taught chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated high school and earned Bachelor and Masters of Arts degrees, before earning her doctorate from La Sorbonne in Paris, one of the oldest universities in the world.
After going through the process of adjusting to a new country and culture, she dedicated her life to assisting other new immigrants in adjusting to the United States, by creating offices of international education in four universities, as well as traveling to Africa and Asia to help other visitors understand American culture.
She has penned two books on her struggle - “Faith, Courage and Survival in a Time of Trouble,” and “Resilience and Compassion: Surviving the Holocaust.” She speaks throughout the country and often holds book-signing events.
And that’s where her journey to South Dakota begins.
“I was attending a Department of Justice conference in Washington DC in March,” said Glenn Jungemann of Wolsey. “My family came along and we took some time to visit some of the places in the capitol, one of which was the Holocaust Museum.”
Jungemann’s wife MaryLiz Stotz picks up the story.
“I had worked in Washington for a while earlier in my career,” she said, “and was intrigued by the Holocaust Museum. Each of us in the family chose one place to go and my son Leeam’s first choice was the Holocaust Museum.”
Stotz was surprised that a 13-year-old would chose to go to a place like the Museum, but said she was proud of his choice.
The family went and she said Leeam was drawn to the gift shop, where there was a throng of people.
“He would come back and find us and told us there was this neat woman there signing books and that I should really come meet her and talk with her,” she recalled.
The woman signing the books and talking about her life was, of course, Dr. Pruitt. A deeper conversation ensued and as Stotz became more involved she realized that the story Dr. Pruitt was talking about was on somewhat of a parallel to things taking place in and around Huron.
“She fled her home country and found refuge in a farming community,” she said. “Many of the Karen people who have settled in Huron have much the same story; leaving their homeland where they were not safe anymore, settling in an ag community and depending - in part - on assistance to integrate themselves into a new culture.”
Stotz said Dr. Pruitt was very easy to talk to and readily shared her survival story. “Somehow, in the hustle and bustle of what was going on, we did manage to exchange emails,” Stotz said.
More discussions took place and Stotz asked Dr. Pruitt what her speaking fee would be to come to Huron and share her story. Pruitt said she didn’t have a fee and agreed to make the trip if arrangements could be made to cover her expenses.
“My husband’s business, Allen Credit and Debt Counseling Agency, got the ball rolling,” Stotz said. “And there have been numerous individuals, businesses and service organizations who have stepped in to assist as well. We found a bunch of great people in the Huron community!”
So much so that after Dr. Pruitt speaks at the Event Center on Monday, she will spend Tuesday at several schools in Huron and will repeat her message to 10 other local schools and home-schooled kids on Wednesday, at the Huron High School Auditorium. The speaking engagements on Tuesday and Wednesday are for school children only. The Monday afternoon and evening programs are open to the public.
“It would be difficult, if not impossible to get her to all the different schools,” Stotz said. “Since we couldn’t get her to the schools, we started working on having the schools come to her.”
She said that the hope is that the students will get a chance to hear Dr. Pruitt’s story and will understand the history of that time and understand the struggles that people have gone through and, in many ways, continue to experience.
“Think of all of the talents and abilities that were lost, just extinguished, during the Holocaust,” Stotz said. “In some ways the same things are going on today. Maybe the next generation learning about these things will help stop the loop.”
Dr. France Pruitt is now retired and lives with her husband Dean in Bethesda, Maryland, near her three sons and their families.
France Pruitt, left, pictured here with her husband Dean, will share her story of surviving the Holocaust Oct. 8, at the Huron Event Center.