Address to students at Adelaide University, 1996
54 years ago, just before my sixth birthday, my parents have asked me what would I like for my birthday. Without hesitation I answered: A SCHOOL BAG. As a small six years old I was looking forward to start school and when I got a nice leather school bag I was excited and could not part with it. As you see the story starts as a normal innocent childhood story. Unfortunately, very soon this story had a tragic twist. My treasured school bag I have enjoyed for no more than 10 days and I never was able to take it to grades 1, 2 or 3 filled with pencils exercise books and other stuff. Why? The answer is quite simple. We were Jewish and living in a central European country – Slovakia which has partitioned in 1939 from Czechoslovakia. As a satellite of the Nazi Germany the infamous Jewish laws came into existence. That time I was not aware about the world of adults, I was only a six year old kid very anxious to start grade 1 of the elementary school. One week after my birthday my father was taken away to a forced labor camp. He was not aware where he was taken and for how long he would be away from his family. We said goodbye, we embraced and I have never saw him again. Few days later my uncle unexpectedly arrived from a distant town with an information that it is not safe to stay in our apartment and without any delay he took us away with very few belongings. To my big disappointment we could not take my newly acquired school bag. Here starts the three-year long saga of hiding, fear, lucky escapes and finally liberation. To talk about these three years is not an easy task and it needs some explanations.
My transformation from childhood to adulthood was instant, because I was in a life-threatening situation. There was no time for adjustment, no time for preparation and no time even for explanation. It was a matter of life or death. I was deprived of my childhood, of my playmates and friends, of my basic education and of my family, except my mother. In many instances I was without food and basic living conditions for days. I accepted everything, I have never complained and I have never cried. After the liberation I was told by my mother to start be happy because we are free, we don’t have to worry to be uncovered and I should try to wipe out all the bad memories from the past. We did not have counselors and psychologists. We had to deal with all our problems ourselves. After the liberation I was looking forward to be reunited with my beloved father, whom I missed so terribly during my hiding years. He would be the person who could share all my experiences and would listen what I have to say. I was inquiring every day about his arrival. My father never arrived and my mother learned that he perished in Lublin Majdanek one of the Nazi extermination camps in Poland. I did not believe and did not accept this fact and I was waiting for many years with hope that one day he will show up. Much later, when I tried to do a family tree, I could not account for 24 close relatives. They had a similar fate as my father, they all were murdered by the Nazis. My grand parents, uncles, aunts and cousins all gone. How somebody could explain a 9 year old boy the reasons for loosing the whole family? Our family was no exception, thousands of families all over Nazi occupied Europe had a similar fate. Many years later, when I had my own children, I never told them about my experiences and what happened during the Holocaust era. I was hoping that such atrocities could never occur again and I wanted to forget about the past. I never spoke in public about it, until three years ago, because I did not believe that it would serve a purpose. To be honest, I did not comprehend all the horrors until I started to read books about Holocaust. After the war for 23 years I was living behind the so-called Iron Curtain mostly under a Communist government and the interpretation of the Holocaust was somehow different. Only when I arrived here to Australia where the flow of information was unlimited and not censored I realized the extent of all the horrors. I still was not convinced about the necessity of talking about my experiences in public.
The reason that I have changed my mind and my opinion is that I have realized that humankind has not learned from this horrible tragedy. I have never imagined that after all the atrocities of the second world war, Korean and Vietnam war and after the collapse of the Soviet bloc there would be civil wars, mass graves, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps in former Yugoslavia. Rise of Neo-Nazism in the unified Germany and other European countries indicate that it could all happen again if the rest of the world let it happen.
Holocaust in Europe did not start from one day to another. There were many pogroms, slaughters, genocide and systematic persecutions in history. But Holocaust was unique. I am not an historian and I am not a Holocaust scholar. I am only a survivor lucky enough to be alive. I would like to quote you one paragraph from Martin Gilbert’s book HOLOCAUST A HISTORY OF THE JEWS OF EUROPE DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR. This paragraph emphasizes the success of the Holocaust.
The preparation for mass murder were made possible by Germany’s military successes in the months following the invasion of Poland in 1939. But from the moment that Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, the devastating process had begun. It was a process which depended upon the rousing of historic hatreds and ancient prejudice, and upon the cooperation or acceptance of many different forces; of industry, science and medicine, of the Civil Service and bureaucracy, and of the most modern mechanisms and channels of communication. It depended also upon collaborators from countries far beyond the German border; and it depended most of all upon the indifference of bystanders in every land.
Do you think that all Germans during the 2nd WW were Nazis and whole of Europe collaborators? Definitely not. Maybe 10% of the population were Nazis and another 10% supporters; but the bulk of the population were bystanders who could not care less. If we analyze the reason of indifference we will conclude that maybe they were not aware what was going on in the death camps or more probably, they did not want to know. My message to you is: Please be aware, be aware of all atrocities which took place in the years of the 2nd WW.
We are lucky, because we live in a country where racial prejudice is not predominant. We are a multi cultural and multi ethnic society and we have learned to respect each other. But unfortunately there are some elements which would like to disturb this harmony. Fortunately, they are in a very small minority. But so were the Nazis in Germany in the early thirties.
Now very briefly back to my original story of my childhood. My story is not unique. There must have been many survivors who went through hell of labor camps, torture, starvation, epidemics, medical experiments and so on. I was lucky because I was not caught. If I would be caught I would be transported automatically into the gas chambers, because I was too young to be useful as a slave labourer.
There were times, when my mother was so desperate that she wanted to terminate our predicament and go to the authorities and give ourselves up. It did not eventuate because there were some decent people who helped us to relocate to a safer place and encouraged us not to give up. There were times when we were placed in a small attic and during the day we could not say a single word because people working on the premises just below the attic were not aware of us. There were times we could not stretch our limbs, our bodies and we could not wash properly. There were freezing conditions in winter and very hot days in the summer. My hair was cut completely with special shears to avoid lice. Very little we knew about the outside world only some fragments of information and usually we were informed about the forthcoming raids by the Nazis. With amazement we were watching the skies when formations of hundreds of American aeroplanes were heading for Germany. We were hoping that the end of the war is not far away. My education in this isolation was very basic. My mother taught me to read, write and some elementary math.
After the long winter of 1945 in the second part of March we frequently heard shootings and explosions. We were told that the Russian army is approaching. On the 1st of April the first Russian soldiers entered the village where was our last hiding place. We were scared to uncover our identities because of the fear that German army would return. In the end we came out and realized that we have survived. We have survived and we did not know the fate of other Jewish people. We were not aware that six million were murdered because they were apparently the enemy of the Reich. We did not know that among them were more than one million innocent Jewish children. Were they also the enemy of the Reich? One million innocent children were handed over to the killers. They will forever haunt us with their silent pleas for spark of kindness and consolation. How many of them could have helped humankind, how many of them could have assisted society in its struggle for survival? How many of them could have discovered a cure for cancer or AIDS? In killing them the killers and their accomplices have at the same time punished themselves and the world. It could take centuries before humankind manages to recover from its wounds.